Reports that the US Department of Health and Human Services cannot locate nearly 1,500 migrant children it placed with American sponsors have resurged this weekend amid increasing controversy stemming from the Trump administration’s policies about separating migrant families.
The communication gap detailed in testimony by a Health and Human Services official last month came as Trump officials spoke out about stricter policies for families who illegally cross the border. Over the weekend, observers described the issue as a potentially decisive moment for Trump to form immigration laws.
The children who the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Health and Human Services department, reportedly cannot locate arrived at the southwestern US border alone, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Trump administration officials have accused unaccompanied minors like these of contributing to increased crime in the US.
However, in many cases, the children being separated from their families are less than two years old, and at least one infant was just 53 weeks old, immigration law specialist Laura St. John described Sunday morning on MSNBC.
St. John, the law director at an Arizona-based immigration law nonprofit, called the administration’s policy “unprecedented” in an interview with anchor Chris Hayes, and said that since January, she had seen over 200 cases of children being separated from their parents.
Under Trump directives, the children of families that are separated are placed under custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and then placed in government shelters.
The government lost track of 1,475 migrant children
Steven Wagner, an acting assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, announced to legislators last month that the Office of Refugee Resettlement had lost track of 1,475 migrant children who had been placed with sponsors in the US.
The office, Wagner detailed in his testimony, had originally tried to reach a total of 7,635 children and their sponsors from October to December 2017. During that period, the refugee resettlement office confirmed 6,075 children were still with their sponsors, 28 had run away, five had been removed from the country and 52 had relocated to live with someone other than the original sponsor.
Wagner pointed out in his testimony that the office is not legally responsible for children once they are placed with a sponsor, but the agency is “taking a fresh look” at legal and policy options to improve its role in ensuring a child’s safe settlement with a sponsor.
Trump has tried shifting the blame to Democrats
The resurgence of the story of the department’s loss of contact with the migrant children comes on the heels of several dismissive statements made by Trump administration officials.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled a “zero-tolerance” policy earlier this month that would separate children from families caught crossing the border illegally, saying, “if you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
In an NPR interview last month, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly dismissed potential concerns about children being separated from their parents upon reaching the border, saying they would be “put into foster care or whatever.”
Meanwhile, Trump attempted to shift the blame to Democrats on Saturday, urging in a tweet for voters to put pressure on the minority party to end the policy.
However, the policy in question is not a law, and has only been adopted by members of Trump’s own administration.
The story caught fire this weekend
The story caught fire this weekend as pundits and officials tried to clarify the significance and consequences of the administration’s lack of contact with the children.
“They haven’t had communication with these previously vetted sponsors,” he said. “Does that mean they’re lost? No, it means there’s a process going on now to find out why these sponsors haven’t checked back in to give us their location.”
He said “inadequate government agencies” and other issues are more likely to blame.
“The idea they’re ‘lost’ is hyperbole to try and create an issue,” he said. “I don’t think there is one other than the fact the bureaucracy, surprise, surprise, doesn’t work so well.”
Though Santorum said an agency could never expect a “100%” response rate, reports have pointed out a lack of contact with the children could mean they are left vulnerable to dangerous situations, such as human trafficking or forced labor.
Others on the panel challenged Santorum’s assurance.
“This is the worst thing I’ve seen in 25-plus years of doing this civil rights work,” Deputy Director for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project Lee Gelernt said on MSNBC on Sunday. “These mothers are describing their kids screaming, ‘Mommy, mommy, don’t let them take me away.'”
“They’re already traumatized from having to flee their countries and then they’re taken away,” Gelernt said. “The medical evidence is overwhelming we may be doing permanent trauma to these kids and yet the government is finding every way they can to try and justify it.”