The United States government lost 1,500 children. Let me repeat that. The United States government lost, or as they would put it, are “unable to determine [the] whereabouts” of 1,500 immigrant children that showed up on the U.S.-Mexico border. Let that sink in.
In late April, Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, testified to Congress that the agency had lost track of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied minors that it placed with sponsors in the United States. The New York Times would go on to report that the agency learned of the missing children after placing calls to the sponsors who took responsibility for them, in which they found out that 6,075 out of 7,635 children remained with their sponsors, 28 had run away, five had been removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to live with a non-sponsor. As for the fate of 1,475 immigrant minors, the government shrugs and states that they are not legally responsible for these children once they are released from the refugee office.
The news went unnoticed until it resurfaced shortly after the Trump administration announced it would implement a “zero-tolerance” policy that would refer anyone crossing the border illegally for federal prosecution. This policy would enforce the separating of children as young as 18-months-old from their families since minors cannot follow their parents into federal custody.
And when questioned whether children would be ripped from their mother’s arms for an undetermined amount of time, The White House Chief of Staff John Kelly would defend the practice in an interview with NPR by saying that it would a “tough deterrent” for asylum seekers, and that “the children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”
The unknown whereabouts of the missing children have left many fearing that they were victims of human traffickers or turned into illegal child laborers having been placed with sponsors pretending to be parents or close relatives. Around the time of the discovery that the children were missing, Frontline released a documentary that described how Guatemalan teens forced to work on an egg farm in Ohio after being released into the custody of human traffickers during the Obama administration. The incident is not just a one-off blunder that has no bigger implications. According to a 2016 report from The Polaris Project, migration and relocation are listed as the top contributing risk factors for human trafficking cases, with Latinos making up a majority of survivors. So no, we cannot dismiss the disappearance of these immigrant children as a break in communication between the HHS and HHS appointed sponsors, nor on the willful diligence of minors—whose native language is Spanish—not wanting to be found.
To be fair, the backlash the Trump administration is facing is somewhat misplaced since the disappearance of these immigrant children would have occurred during the Obama administration. And yet, the callousness and total disregard towards the plight of these immigrant families is reprehensible. These aren’t “animals” sneaking into the country, they are people seeking asylum from the violence in their own. So when you implement a policy that encourages children being ripped from their parents’ arms and placed into a failed, system that lacks accountability, you are not representing the American way. Nor are you being consistent with the ideals and moral obligations of a party that considers itself to be family first.