From families split to “lost” children, the stories behind the alarming US immigration headlines

Tough road ahead.
Tough road ahead.
Image: AP Photo/Hans-Maximo Musielik
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The last few weeks have brought a barrage of alarming headlines and social media posts about US immigration practices, from harrowing accounts and videos of children separated from their parents at the border, to children held as detainees at military camps, to the news that last year the administration lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant minors formerly in its custody.

There are several stories currently in the news—and it’s easy to get them mixed up, or attribute them all to the current administration, when some actually pre-dated Donald Trump’s presidency.

Here is a breakdown:

Children are being separated from their parents at the US border

As of earlier this month, the Trump administration announced, it will detain and prosecute every immigrant caught entering the US illegally, a policy that effectively means that parents who cross the border into the US with their children will be separated from their children while they are wait for their day in court to appeal for asylum. Since children cannot be held indefinitely in detention, they will be separated from their parents.

“If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” US attorney general Jeff Sessions has said. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

The stated goal of this policy is to deter would-be immigrants, but critics and experts have pointed out that it is bound to create lasting psychological trauma for the children. On May 26, Trump said on Twitter that it is Democrats who should be held responsible for ending “the horrible law that separates children from there parents.” In fact this is a policy that was adopted by the current administration.

The US government has lost track of 1,475 immigrant children

You’ve probably seen this number shared on social media, and it sounds absolutely terrible: The US government has lost track of 1,475 undocumented immigrant children, an official said during a Senate committee hearing last month. But some of the outrage at this situation is misplaced, immigration experts and advocates have pointed out.

On April 26, an officer in the department of Health and Human Services (HHS), testified on the situation of unaccompanied minors that had crossed the border from Mexico into the US and had been placed into foster care. He said that, after placing them with sponsors in 2017, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) ”was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 [unaccompanied alien children].”

This is a number based on a survey of 7,635 minors after they had been released to an adult sponsor: The HHS was only able to locate 6,075 in phone calls for this follow-up survey.

Unlike the children separated from their parents at the border under the new Trump administration policy, these are children that came into the country alone. There are always concerns that some undocumented children are trafficked or abused, but the ORR says that (paywall) 85% of the children were placed family members. The ORR’s inability to track the children may be a consequence of their guardians trying to stay off the grid because of their own immigration status, especially at a time of ramped-up immigration enforcement.

Once a child is with a sponsor, the ORR relinquishes responsibility, Ephrat Livni wrote in Quartz:

That’s not great. But demands to crack down on ORR release policies could make things worse for the kids who disappeared, and for those who will continue to arrive alone at the border. Asking ORR to be more strict about releasing undocumented kids, and keeping an eye on them after they are released, could make it harder for sponsors to step up and take in their family members. It could also incentivize more disappearances for those who do, forcing more families to exist underground to avoid authorities.

The ORR’s practices when it comes to dealing with unaccompanied children are not Trump-era policies, but pre-dated his presidency.

The US government has released a dozen children to traffickers

A Senate report (pdf) stating that about a dozen immigrant children in the US government’s custody had been released to traffickers is being circulated as yet another example of the Trump administration’s brutal behavior towards immigrants. This report, however, was released in January 2016, and details ORR actions that occurred during Barack Obama’s administration.

Immigrant children have been neglected and abused by border patrol agents

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released the findings from an analysis of 33,000 pages of documents detailing the treatment of children at the border between 2009 and 2014. Those documents were released by the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) following a freedom of information request filed in 2014.

According to the ACLU, “the records document a pattern of intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, refusal of medical services, and improper deportation” that went unscrutinized within the CBP and led to a climate of impunity.

Although the documents are being released just now (the first batch this month, and three more releases scheduled for June, August, and September), the abuses detailed in these papers date back to several years ago and all took place during the Obama administration.

ICE wants to destroy records of sexual assaults and deaths in custody

In 2017, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asked the US archive and records administration for authorization to destroy its records related to serious occurrences involving people in its custody, including sexual assaults, solitary confinements, and even deaths of detainees.

ICE’s proposal, which was temporarily approved by the archive and records authority—a decision now being appealed—would set timelines for destroying such records, according to the ACLU: Records of sexual assaults or deaths would be kept for 20 years, while information about detainees put in solitary confinement would only be kept for three years.

The Trump administration made this request. “Given the Trump administration’s plans to increase the size and scope of the system substantially, it is all the more disturbing that the agency wants to reduce transparency and accountability,” the ACLU has said.

Immigrant children could be held in military bases

As children who arrive at the border are separated from their families, the number of minors in government custody is bound to go up significantly. The government is responsible for caring for the children, who need to be placed in the custody of the ORR within 72 hours of being held by the Department of Homeland Security.

Children who can’t promptly be released to a parent or guardian can be transferred to shelters equipped to hold children, and the administration is rumored to be considering adapting some military bases to the task: An email to Pentagon staffers said that HHS would visit military bases in Texas and Arkansas to assess whether they could be used as shelters for children who arrived unaccompanied or were separated from their families. The final determination on whether to use this system has not yet been made.

ICE has buses just for children

An image from the contractor running the largest ICE family shelter in the country, Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, shows a bus equipped with child seats. It has caused outrage and been described by critics as “a prison bus just for babies”:

Meanwhile, the bus is touted by the contractor, the Geo Group, as a way to transport the housed kids on field trips to the zoo, theaters, or the park, in the care of nurses, case workers, or teachers. The bus, as well as the 1,158-bed Karnes County Residential Center, dates back to before the current administration—the buses were ordered in 2015.

A woman was killed by border patrol official in Texas

A witness described to the New York Times (paywall) seeing a woman of about 20 shot and killed by a border patrol officer in an empty lot next to her home in Laredo, Texas. The dead woman, who was not identified, had apparently crossed the border illegally and was hiding from the officer, Marta Martinez told the Times.

Federal authorities say the officer shot in response to being hit with blunt objects by a group of immigrants while searching for “illegal activities” in the residential area. Martinez said the dead woman was unarmed, and before she heard the shot, “I didn’t hear any yelling or ‘stop’ or ‘don’t run,’” she told the Times.

Martinez recorded some of the aftermath of the shooting, and published the video on Facebook, where she can be heard shouting, asking the officer in Spanish why he shot the woman and whether she was dead. Martinez said she heard the officer say to the other immigrants in the group, “See what happens? This is what happens with you people.”