U.S. Customs and Border Protection provide assistance to unaccompanied migrant children after they crossed the border into the United States on March 28, 2014. (Hector Silva/CBP)

Agency Didn’t Lose Unaccompanied Migrant Children, Argues HHS

The Department of Health and Human Services insisted this week that they have not lost immigrant children under their care as a social media campaign coupled the controversy over tracking of unaccompanied minors with protest over the Trump administration’s policy on separating families at the border.

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Gatlinburg Law Enforcement Training Conference in Tennessee on May 8. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

Last weekend, tweets with the trending hashtag #WhereAreTheChildren often referred to the Trump administration’s stated policy of separating children from parents, but the case of missing immigrant children instead has to do with unaccompanied minors at the border being placed with sponsors while applying for asylum.

The latter controversy stems from the Senate testimony of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families Steven Wagner, who told Congress that between October and December last year the Office of Refugee Resettlement tried to reach 7,635 of these children and their sponsor at the 30-day mark to check on their welfare post-placement. In that outreach period, ORR “was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475” unaccompanied migrant children.

“That’s not to say that the remaining 13 percent or 14 percent are missing, not where they belong, but we were unable to confirm that that’s where they were,” Wagner told a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee hearing late last month.

Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan issued a statement this week stressing that the “completely false” assertion of lost kids was “a classic example of the adage ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’”

ORR, he noted, “began voluntarily making calls in 2016 as a 30-day follow-up on the release of UAC to make sure that UAC and their sponsors did not require additional services,” and “this additional step, which is not required and was not done previously, is now being used to confuse and spread misinformation.”

“These children are not ‘lost’; their sponsors — who are usually parents or family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them — simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made,” Hargan said. “While there are many possible reasons for this, in many cases sponsors cannot be reached because they themselves are illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities.”

“This is the core of this issue: In many cases, HHS has been put in the position of placing illegal aliens with the individuals who helped arrange for them to enter the country illegally. This makes the immediate crisis worse and creates a perverse incentive for further violation of federal immigration law.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) said Monday that ORR reporting at least 28 runaways among the unaccompanied migrant children means “they may be in danger — you never know whether these children have been kidnapped, whether they have been taken by drug dealers or very rough people that could harm them.”

“Did they cross the border back again? Are they still wandering around in some southern town? We really have no idea,” the congressman said. “And that amounts to a human rights crisis.”

Some activists were using the hashtag #EndFamilySeparation to distinguish their protest of the Sessions policy announcement from the HHS tracking of sponsored unaccompanied minors.

The cross-border legal services group Al Otro Lado tweeted Monday that “the answer is to separate ICE and ORR so the latter can actually do its job,” and “not placing UCs in deportation proceedings at all would be a good start.”

“We absolutely shouldn’t be advocating for ORR to find the ‘missing’ kids because ICE will likely just deport them,” added the group.

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a weekly columnist for the New York Observer and a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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