Did the Trump Administration Separate Immigrant Children From Parents and Lose Them?

There has been confusion over how and why the government lost track of more than 1,000 immigrant children.

President Trump over the weekend falsely blamed Democrats for a “horrible law” separating immigrant children from their parents. In fact, his own administration had just announced this policy earlier this month.

His comments followed days of growing alarm that federal authorities have lost track of more than 1,000 immigrant children, mostly from Central America, giving rise to hashtags like #WhereAreTheChildren and claims that children are being ripped from their parents’ arms at the border and then being lost.

But the president is not the only one spreading wrong information. Across social media, there have been confusing reports of what happened to these immigrant children. Here are some answers.

No. The government did realize last year that it lost track of 1,475 migrant children it had placed with sponsors in the United States, according to testimony before a Senate subcommittee last month. But those children had arrived alone at the Southwest border — without their parents. Most of them are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence and domestic abuse, according to government data.

[Read more in our story about the testimony.]

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees refugee resettlement, began making calls last year to determine what had happened to 7,635 children the government had helped place between last October and the end of the year.

From these calls, officials learned that 6,075 children remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight had run away, five had been removed from the United States and 52 had relocated to live with a nonsponsor. The rest were unaccounted for, giving rise to the 1,475 number. It is possible that some of the adult sponsors simply chose not to respond to the agency.

Losing track of children who arrive at the border alone is not a new phenomenon. A 2016 inspector general report showed that the federal government was able to reach only 84 percent of children it had placed, leaving 4,159 unaccounted for.

On Monday evening, Eric Hargan, the deputy secretary for Health and Human Services, expressed frustration at the use of the term “lost” to refer to the 1,475 unaccounted-for children. In a statement, he said that the department’s office of refugee resettlement began voluntarily making the calls as a 30-day follow-up to make sure that the children and their sponsors did not require additional services. Those calls, which the office does not view as required, Mr. Hargan said, are now “being used to confuse and spread misinformation.”

In many cases, the statement said, sponsors cannot be reached because “they themselves are illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities.”

This is where people are likely getting the idea that the Trump administration has separated children from their parents and then lost them. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” policy earlier this month that included imposing criminal penalties meant to deter Central American families from trying to cross the border illegally.

If a mother or father is with a child when apprehended for the crime of illegal entry, the minor must be taken from the parent. Hundreds of immigrant children have already been separated from their parents at the border since October, and the new policy will result in a steep increase. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Mr. Sessions said.

It’s not clear what has happened to the children that have been separated from their parents since October. This is a deeper explanation on the practice of separating families.

There is no law mandating separation. The closest is the Trump administration’s own “zero tolerance” policy. And the Democrats did not initiate that.

Children who show up at the border by themselves are usually apprehended by federal agents. Once they are processed, they are turned over to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ refugee office, which provides care until they can be turned over to a sponsor. Sponsors, usually parents or family members already residing in the United States, are supposed to undergo a detailed background check.

Historically, the agency has said it was not legally responsible for children after they had been released from its refugee office. But Congress is now examining the agency’s safeguards.

After being placed with a sponsor, unaccompanied minors face deportation proceedings. They may seek asylum or other relief to try to remain in the country legally.

Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio and chairman of a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee, has said the government has a responsibility to track them so that they are not abused or trafficked, and so that they attend their court proceedings. In 2016, under the Obama administration, the subcommittee released a report finding that department officials had failed to establish procedures to protect unaccompanied minors from being turned over to smugglers or human traffickers. Eight children, the report found, had been placed with human traffickers who forced them to work on an egg farm.

To prevent similar episodes, the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services Departments agreed to establish new guidelines within a year. It is now more than a year after that deadline.

Undocumented immigrants who are stopped by the Border Patrol or customs officers will be sent directly to a federal court by the United States Marshals Service. Children will be placed in the custody of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, administration officials said — the same office that handles minors who show up at the border unaccompanied by an adult. The adult immigrants would be sent to detention centers to await trial.

If convicted, immigrants would be imprisoned for the duration of their sentences, after which time they could be returned to their countries of origin. First-time illegal entry is a misdemeanor that carries up to a six-month prison sentence. Repeat entry constitutes a felony and carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment. It is not clear how easily they would be able to reunite with their children.

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