A new report from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services finds that an unknown number of children — possibly “thousands” — were separated from parents at the US-Mexico border before June 2018 but hadn’t been included in official government tallies of separated families.
The Trump administration’s practice of separating families who crossed into the US without papers (by prosecuting parents for illegal entry into the US and sending them into criminal custody, while children were reclassified as “unaccompanied” minors) became a nationwide scandal in the late spring of 2018, leading to a Trump administration executive order ending the policy and a federal court order requiring the administration to reunite the separated parents and children in its care.
Join the Vox Video Lab
Go behind the scenes. Chat with creators.
But despite fears (among politicians and the public) of widespread “loss” or trafficking of immigrant children, the available evidence suggests most separated children (like children who arrive unaccompanied) were placed with close relatives in the US.
Because of the federal government’s failure to keep records about which children in its care had been separated from their parents, the public will never know the full scope of the Trump administration’s use of family separation against border crossers in Trump’s first year and a half in office.
When families are separated at the border, the children are classified as “unaccompanied alien children” (the label put on children who come to the US without a parent or guardian) and sent into the custody of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for placing them with a sponsor.
Until summer 2018, there was no official way to record the difference between a child who’d come without a parent and a child who’d been separated from one in the files that were sent from DHS to HHS.
HHS’s job isn’t to hold children until a parent can be identified, but to place them with a suitable sponsor — a parent, other relative, family friend, or (if needed) unrelated adult — as soon as safely possible. And if a child turns 18, or decides to return to their home country, they’re no longer HHS’s responsibility.
Family separation was an occasional practice going back as far as late 2016, but it ramped up hugely as the Trump administration instituted a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting as many adults as possible for illegal entry into the US, and separating parents from their children to be sent into criminal custody.
In spring of 2018, that pilot was expanded across the US-Mexico border, and separations rapidly spiked.
8 separations a day.
On June 26, 2018, Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the federal government not only to stop separating families (something the Trump administration had promised to do as a matter of course the week before) but to reunify them.
To do that, it had to identify the number of separated children who were in the government’s care at that time. That number — about 2,737 as of December — is what’s typically taken as the number of separated families.
The inspector general’s report is estimating that that is what happened to “thousands” of children: They were separated from their parents when they entered the US, but by the time HHS started identifying separated children, they were no longer under HHS’s care.
(A 2016 government report found that about 60 percent of immigrant children who came unaccompanied from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador were placed with a parent living in the US.) There have been some high-profile cases of insufficient vetting of would-be sponsors, but the Trump administration has reacted to that by substantially tightening vetting, to the point of keeping kids in custody a lot longer than they were under the Obama administration.
Because HHS doesn’t actually know how many of the children it released from custody before June 26, 2018, were separated from parents at the border, it’s impossible to go back through those records and find out where the separated children went.
So it’s reasonable to believe that most children were placed with relatives or family friends in the US (possibly even with parents who had been released from detention, or a parent already living here).
Overall, from fiscal year 2017 to the first eight months of fiscal year 2018, the share of kids placed with parents dropped from 49 percent to 41 percent, but the share placed with other close relatives rose from 41 percent to 47 percent.
But it is possible that a disproportionate number of separated children were placed with unrelated sponsors as foster children — or released because they chose to be returned to their home country (perhaps to reunite with their parents).
We don’t know. We’ll never know..