In April, The New York Times reported data from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that showed that since October 2017, more than 700 migrant children had been taken from adults claiming to be their parents, including more than 100 children below age 4. The administration of President Donald Trump, for whom illegal migration has been a core agenda issue, had earlier said it might take children from parents to deter illegal border crossings, and lawmakers had been asking for numbers of families being separated along the US’s southern border. It was subsequently reported that nearly 1,500 immigrant children had been “lost” while in federal custody until the end of last year.
Over the past several days, a heated public debate has raged over the administration’s policy towards migrant children. There has been outrage and calls to action in civil society and the liberal commentariat, and social media has been aflame with hashtags such as #WhereAreTheChildren and #MissingChildren. What are the issues here, and why have they exploded now?
The missing 1,475
On April 26, an HHS official told a committee of the Senate that his department did not know the whereabouts of 1,475 children who had entered unaccompanied from Mexico, and had been placed with adult sponsors in the US. Between October and December 2017, HHS had found that out of 7,635 children it had handed over to sponsors, 6,075 were still there, 28 had fled, 5 had been deported, and 52 were living elsewhere, the AP reported. The other 1,475 were missing.
HHS has said it has no legal responsibility to trace these children. It has also been argued that some sponsors, possibly relatives, may be blocking attempts to reach the children. Critics, including some Republican lawmakers, have, however, insisted this is more about humanity and accountability than just legal responsibility, and that “these kids, regardless of their immigration status, deserve to be treated properly, not abused or trafficked”.
Snatched from parents?
This has been a persistent allegation, but the fact is these 1,475 children arrived at the southwest border on their own and were, in US government parlance, “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs). However, many children may have been separated from their parents after they had entered the US together. On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
A deterrent measure
On May 7, The Washington Post reported on a secret government document that indicated discussions about splitting up families at the border as a way to nudge them towards not attempting illegal entries. A few days later, White House Chief of Staff John F Kelly suggested that splitting families would be a “tough deterrent” to migrants thinking about bringing their children along.
Trauma and denial
The American media has been reporting heartrending stories on the pain and uncertainty that families separated forcibly by the authorities face. Earlier this year, 71 Democratic lawmakers told the government they were “deeply disturbed” over the issue. On May 16, Senator Kamala Harris criticised the “immoral” policy of “separating parents from their children”, in response to which Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen insisted that “anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted”, and that their children would, naturally, “go to HHS for care and custody”.
Timing of outrage
In a detailed explainer, The Washington Post said it was unclear why the controversy, which has long been reported on, had suddenly gained traction on social media over the past few days. Among the reasons, it said, could be a widely shared column in USA Today, and the fact that it was International Missing Children’s Day last Friday. President Trump reacted to the outrage in characteristic fashion a day later, blaming Democrats (falsely) for “the horrible law that separates children from parents once they cross the Border”, and setting off even more outrage.