On April 26, 2018, Steven Wagner, an official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), stated during a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee oversight hearing that HHS had lost track of 1475 migrant children in 2017. The migrant children had all been placed into HHS custody when trying to cross the Mexican border into the U.S, unaccompanied by adults.
When migrant children attempt to cross the border on their own, the Department of Homeland Security places them into the custody of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), who provides them with food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities, until sponsors are selected and approved for the children.
Officials at HHS maintain that once the ORR places migrant children into the care of sponsors, it is no longer the responsibility of HHS to keep track of them. HHS did, however, follow up with a survey of over 7,000 of the migrant children, and this is apparently how they discovered that almost 1500 of them are unaccounted for.
According to Snopes, “From October to December 2017, HHS called 7,635 children the agency had placed with sponsors, and found 6,075 of the children were still living with their sponsors, 28 had run away, five had been deported and 52 were living with someone else. The rest were ‘missing,’ said Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at HHS.”
But this does not excuse the HHS’ complete lack of concern for following up on the safety and well-being of these children, which could be illustrated by Senator Rick Santorum’s comment on CNN’s State of the Union: “I mean, we lose people all the time in a lot of other government programs.”
Usually, a sponsor is a parent or other close family member, but sometimes, the sponsor is not related, or is a distant relative. When HHS releases migrant children to the care of sponsors, the children become the responsibility of the sponsors. On the one hand, with no oversight or follow-up from HHS, migrant children, if not in the hands of familiar and trusted relatives or family members, could be ripe for human trafficking.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate subcommittee, in response to the revelation the HHS had lost track of 1475 migrant children, cited the case of a group of Guatemalan boys who had been forced to work on an Ohio egg farm after the HHS had released them to the care of human traffickers posing as family members (and hence approved as sponsors).
“These kids, regardless of their immigration status, deserve to be treated properly, not abused or trafficked,” Portman said in the subcommittee. “This is all about accountability. …We’ve got these kids. They’re here. They’re living on our soil,” he told PBS. “And for us to just, you know, assume someone else is going to take care of them and throw them to the wolves, which is what HHS was doing, is flat-out wrong. I don’t care what you think about immigration policy, it’s wrong.”
On the other hand, with the Trump administration’s no-holds-barred approach to undocumented immigration (including the recent announcement that the Justice Department would begin to prosecute 100 percent of those who attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally), some feel that it’s not altogether bad that the HHS hasn’t caught up with all of the migrant children.
It’s possible that some of these migrant children and their sponsors have not responded to HHS calls because they have chosen to go “off the grid” in order to avoid the risk of deportation or prosecution. There are many other possible explanations for their “disappearance, including explanations as simple as an outdated phone number, or a decision not to answer the phone.
Whether we agree or not with the Trump administration’s policies regarding immigration, it is not ok to put any children, no matter what their status, at any level of risk for human trafficking. Just as true, though, is that undocumented migrant children are quite likely trying to flee a traumatic situation at home, and it is not ok, simply because we “can’t take on everyone in a difficult situation,” to subject these or any children to childhood trauma, whether through government negligence by formal policy.
Outrage over reports of ‘missing’ immigrant children – Daily Mail | Daily Mail [2018-05-28]
Federal Government Lost Track Of 1,500 Immigrant Children | Wochit Politics [2018-05-26]