The U.S. federal government might have lost track of thousands more migrant children than previously reported, according to an analysis by McClatchy DC.
The publication reported Tuesday that given the Department of Health and Human Services estimate that 14 percent of phone calls to children’s sponsors go unreturned, the actual number of minors the agency cannot locate from 2017 is about 6,000.
Federal officials acknowledged last month that nearly 1,500 unaccompanied minors arrived on the southern border alone without their parents and were placed with sponsors who did not keep in touch with federal officials, but those numbers were only a snapshot of a three- month period during the last fiscal year.
And this number is likely to grow in light of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, as more children are detained by U.S. Border Patrol while their parents are prosecuted for crossing the border between ports of entry.
Also complicating matters is the administration’s overall crackdown on illegal immigration, which has increased fear in immigrant communities across the U.S.
Advocates argue the growing numbers of unaccounted children should be expected as families and sponsors become more fearful of federal officials that is now using information from government social workers to run immigration checks and, in some cases, target sponsors, including parents and family members, for removal.
“To the extent that there are problems for protection of unaccompanied children, this will only become worse as they put more kids in the unaccompanied category by ripping them away from their families,” said Clara Long, U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch.
What happens after children are detained at the border?
Whether they are unaccompanied minors – meaning they came to the U.S. without an adult – or they are taken from their parents, migrant children are referred to HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement for care until they can be placed with a sponsor or in foster care.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told McClatchy in Miami that 50 percent of the kids end up with their parents as their sponsors.
"About 40 percent on average end up with other family members here in the United States," Azar said. "And about 10 percent or so end up with non-related individuals, maybe foster care, other volunteers who want to take the child in. So that’s really what our mission is: Is to care for them once given to us. Get them into a safe environment and out to sponsors as soon as possible."
Once the children are placed with sponsors, ORR is no longer legally responsible for their well-being or compliance with the immigration court process; however, after 30 days, the office places a courtesy check-in call to sponsors.
Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, stressed this point to reporters:
“You can imagine that many of those would not choose to speak to a federal official calling them on the phone,” Wagner told reporters. “But there’s no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids. If you call a friend and they don’t answer the phone, you don’t assume that they’ve been kidnapped. So that characterization that the kids are missing is incorrect. And I just want to emphasize that they are not in our custody at the point at which that voluntary phone call is made.”
HHS came under intense scrutiny in 2015 when it was discovered the agency had loose standards in determining whether a sponsor was fit to take custody of a child.
In one high-profile case, HHS allowed six migrant children from Guatemala to be turned over to traffickers who forced them to work in grueling conditions on an Ohio egg farm.
After reports of 1,500 unaccounted children earlier this year, the Trump administration promised to beef up vetting procedures for sponsors, including fingerprinting parents and making DHS aware of the parents’ immigration status, McClatchy reported.
In the meantime, it is the increase in migrant children placed in federal custody combined with the hostile atmosphere surrounding immigration that will exacerbate the issue, advocates say.
[Frank Sharry, executive director of immigration advocate group America’s Voice] said many of the children are placed with family members who are in the United States illegally and may be afraid to speak to federal authorities, even if they are just trying to check on children because of "a climate of fear."
"What’s happened is that ICE has a new policy of going after sponsors," he said. "The bigger story if not that they are losing people - it's that ICE is terrorizing people."