1,500 missing children: What does that really mean?

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On April 26, the New York Times reported:

“A top official with the Department of Health and Human Services told members of Congress on Thursday that the agency had lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children it placed with sponsors in the United States, raising concerns they could end up in the hands of human traffickers or be used as laborers by people posing as relatives.”

These children were “unaccompanied minors” who arrived at the border on their own and were placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and then placed with sponsors. Most were from Central America, and were fleeing violence from gangs and drug cartels. Most of the 7,635 unaccompanied minors placed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) arrived before 2017.  

In January 2016, the placement program was discovered to have put six children in a placement that contracted them out to what amounted to forced labor on an egg farm. This is human trafficking. Reports at that time said as many as two dozen children may have been placed with traffickers.  The children were removed from that placement, and HHS agreed to implement new procedures for vetting sponsors. Guidelines for the new vetting practices are still not in place.

These are not the children who are now being removed from their parents at the southwestern border. Those children, however, will go to the same agencies for placement.

Are the 1,475 “missing” children in danger? The short answer is that no one knows for sure.

Apparently, DHS tried to locate them by making a phone call. That’s a minimal effort, and it’s possible that a more robust effort could locate most of the children.

On the other hand, as a lengthy Twitter thread, attorney Josie Duffy Rice pointed out, some of the children may not want to be located. They may be living with family members who do not want to interact with the government, and especially not with anyone connected to immigration enforcement. Rice writes:

“The potential for backfiring is real. What we’re demanding is that ORR, which works hand in hand with ICE, “keep better track” of kids they basically would like to deport if given the chance.

“You’re asking immigration authorities in TRUMPS AMERICA to BETTER MONITOR UNDOCUMENTED CHILDREN AND THEIR FAMILIES. You don’t want this. I promise you don’t.”

Except—if a child has applied for asylum, they may be able to get “documented” and to gain the safety of legal permanent residence. If they miss court dates, that won’t happen: they will be ordered deported, and they will lose any chance at making their case for asylum. They will remain permanently at risk in Trump’s America.

Even if we knew that all of the 1,475 children were safely with family members—and we do NOT know that—the ORR record of losing track of 1 in 5 children is alarming. They are now getting custody of the hundreds of children ripped away from their parents at the border. They place some of these children in shelters, some in government-approved foster homes. Their parents are not told where they are. If ORR doesn’t keep track of them, how will they ever have a chance of being reunited as a family?

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