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Here's what's really happening with the 1,500 'missing' immigrant children.
(CNN) In the past few days there's been a flurry of emotion, and misinformation, regarding child immigrants in the United States.
Recent reports claim the US Department of Health and Human Services has lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children. There's confusion about whether they were separated from their families at the border. And controversy is swirling around a mysterious photo of two immigrant children behind a chain-link fence.
Here is what it all actually means.
No, the 1,500 children weren't necessarily taken from their families at the border.
In early May, the Trump administration announced it would start enacting a "100% prosecution" policy at the border, which would refer anyone crossing the border illegally for federal prosecution. This policy functionally separates children from their families, because children cannot accompany adults who are taken into federal custody.
Because of the attention surrounding this new policy, people revisited a claim made by Steven Wagner, a top official with the Department of Health and Human Services, during a hearing in April. During that hearing, Wagner said the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was "unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC (unaccompanied alien children)."
Some people began to conflate Wagner's comment and the new policy, forming the idea that these children were forcibly separated from their families at the border and then lost. In fact, ORR officials couldn't locate the children between October and December of 2017 -- way before this new policy took effect.
In fact, unaccompanied child immigrants don't come over the border with their families -- hence the designation of "unaccompanied." Some of the 1,500 children could have been separated from the groups with which they entered the country, but it would not have been as a result of the Trump administration's new policy. For instance, if a child comes with an adult and it can't be verified that the adult is a parent or legal guardian, the adult and child would be separated.
"The way it has worked historically is, when a child comes into the US without a parent or legal guardian, if there is a parent or guardian or relative already here, they would be placed with that person as a 'sponsor' while they are undergoing immigration hearings," says Jennifer Ward, an immigration and family services expert who spent 10 years as executive director of a refugee resettlement agency in Tennessee.
Ward says the ORR typically makes a follow-up welfare call or visit to the sponsor a few weeks or months after the child is placed. According to Wagner, such an action is part of the ORR's process, but the agency "is not legally responsible for children after they are released from ORR care."
No, they are most likely not 'missing'
When it comes to children, phrases like "unable to determine whereabouts" never inspire comfort, especially when people assume it is as a result of a child being ripped from their families. But the reality is a little different.
There could be a lot of reasons for why the 1,475 children were unaccounted for, Ward says.
"The sponsors may be undocumented themselves, they may change their phone number," she says. "The requirement is just a phone call -- you don't necessarily have to go (check on the child) physically, although some do."
Wagner, too, defended his original claim by saying that sponsors who are "illegal aliens" probably "do not want to be reached by federal authorities."
In a conference call with reporters organized by the White House on Tuesday, Wagner said the 30-day check-in phone calls in those cases simply weren't answered. He compared the outcry over the "lost" children to calling a friend and, when they don't answer, assuming they were kidnapped.
In reality, he said, many of the adults may also be undocumented.
"You can imagine that many of those would not choose to speak to a federal official calling them on the phone," Wagner said. "But there's no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids."
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