On April 26, Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of Administration for Children and Families for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), disclosed to a Senate subcommittee that his agency had lost track of about 1,500 migrant children that it placed with sponsors.
The testimony was made at a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee oversight hearing, and according to the transcript, Wagner explained that the agency became aware of the missing children after contacting the sponsors who were supposed to be taking care of the minors once they were released from government custody.
According to Wagner’s testimony, from October to December 2017 the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) tried to contact 7,635 unaccompanied children and their sponsors. From this number, officials learned that 6,075 of the children remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight children had run away, five had been removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to reside with another sponsor. However, officials at the ORR were unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 children.
Most of the children arriving at the border are coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to escape drug cartels, gang violence, and abusive homes. Individuals who are discovered at the border and are found to be fleeing persecution can obtain an asylee status. However, asylum is only granted at a port of entry or if the individual was found to be already living in the United States. Thus, in 2013 many children began making the dangerous journey to the U.S. alone — defined as unaccompanied minors — in order to learn if they were eligible to receive asylum. The Central American Minors Program that was established under the Obama administration was meant to eliminate this dangerous trek, by establishing if a child was a refugee while they were still residing in their country. That program was canceled by the Trump administration.
In addition, in the past, if children crossed the border with a parent they would be processed together in a civil court. However, now the Trump administration has begun separating children from their parents, resulting in the parents being sent to jail, and their kids being placed in the same detention centers as unaccompanied minors. When pressed by NPR three weeks ago about critics calling the policy “cruel and heartless” the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, stated, “the children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”
A spokesman for HHS told Snopes that when unaccompanied minors arrive at the border, they are transferred from the Department of Homeland Security into the care of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Next, the children are placed with sponsors, who are selected and approved by ORR. The sponsors are subjected to background checks and 85% of the sponsors are relatives of the minors. However, the remaining sponsors are either distantly related to the minors or not related at all. Once the children are placed with sponsors, they are no longer in the custody of the U.S. government.
The concern with the missing children is that they will end up with human traffickers. The subcommittee released a report two years ago that described how HHS officials placed eight children in the hands of human traffickers, and the minors were forced to work on an egg farm under threat. The report demonstrated that officials had failed to conduct sufficient background checks and follow up with sponsors. After the incident, in 2016 the Department of Homeland Security and HHS entered into a “Memorandum of Agreement”, which stated that these agencies understood that they needed to ensure the children were protected from traffickers and abuse. The agreement also stated that the agencies would enter into a “Joint Concept of Operations” that would list guidelines on how they would fix the problem within one year. More than a year has passed, and the guidelines have not been completed.
Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced earlier this month that there will be increased criminal prosecutions for people crossing the border – including the separation of children from their parents. According to CNBC News, immigration public defenders stated that there has been an increase in family separations since Sessions’ announcement.