‘The worst thing I’ve seen in 25-plus years’: Experts react to news that Trump administration lost 1,500 migrant children

  • Reports the US Department of Health and Human Services cannot locate nearly 1,500 migrant children it placed with American sponsors have drawn attention since a department official testified about the issue last month.
  • The story has caught fire amid discord within President Donald Trump’s administration on the handling of illegal immigration after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy last month.
  • The “lost” children were a major talking point over the weekend.

Reports that the US Department of Health and Human Services cannot locate nearly 1,500 migrant children it placed with American sponsors have drawn attention this weekend amid increasing scrutiny toward 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 whom the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of Health and Human Services, 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 criminal activity in the US.

In many cases, however, the children being separated from their families are less than 2 years old, and at least one infant was just 53 weeks old, an immigration law specialist named 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 the anchor Chris Hayes, saying that since January she had seen more than 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

President Donald Trump with the White House chief of staff, John Kelly.

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President Donald Trump with the White House chief of staff, John Kelly.
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Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

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, tried to reach 7,635 children and their sponsors from October to December. 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 he said the agency was “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, the 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.”

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.

The policy in question, however, is not a law and has been adopted only by members of the Trump 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.

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, said on a CNN “State of the Union” panel Sunday morning that the term “lost” meant only a lack of contact between the agency and the children’s’ American sponsors.

“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 were 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,” Lee Gelernt, the deputy director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, 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.”