Over Memorial Day weekend, social media exploded over a series of tragic stories about the treatment of immigrant children in the US. As photos of kids sleeping on floors in cages, harrowing accounts of toddlers being torn from their parents, and tweets with the hashtag #WhereAretheKids made their rounds, outrage mounted.
But outrage turned to confusion as many on social media — including celebrities, activists, and even journalists — began issuing calls to action that created false narratives concerning the federal government separating children from their parents and losing track of children under its care.
Misinformation about both of these situations continues to run rampant on social media. So what is actually happening to migrant kids in the US?
There are two main issues at play here:
1. The feds lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children.
About a month ago, news outlets began to report that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — which is responsible for sheltering unaccompanied immigrant children who arrive in the US — lost track of 1,475 children, whom it had released from its shelters to relatives or sponsors.
2. The Trump administration is separating parents and children at the border.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who heads the Department of Justice, and officials from the Department of Homeland Security, including the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, announced that they would be separating children and parents who without authorization — even those who cross seeking asylum — as part of a new “zero-tolerance policy.” Last week, harrowing anecdotes about the implementation of that policy started to surface, as immigration agents ripped children as young as 1 year old from their parents.
Are these the same children?
No. While many have been tempted to connect these situations, they are two distinct issues and involve two different groups of migrant children.
The nearly 1,500 "missing" children came to the US without any adult supervision. After immigration agents at the border processed the unaccompanied minors, they placed them in the care of HHS, and HHS housed them in its shelters. Then, HHS released the kids to relatives or other available sponsors, in accordance with longstanding protocol, and then lost touch with the kids' sponsors.
The kids that were separated from their parents, on the other hand, are victims of a new Trump administration policy, which was pitched by top officials as a way to discourage migrant families from crossing the southern border.
Are these issues equally harmful to migrant children and families?
No. One of these issues is a human rights tragedy, while the other could actually be in the best interest of some of the children.
Immigrants’ rights advocates have unequivocally condemned the new practice of separating children from their families as cruel and unnecessary. The policy is especially harmful to young children who are likely already dealing with the trauma of fleeing violence in their home countries.
“The medical evidence is overwhelming that we may be doing permanent trauma to these kids,” Lee Gelernt, the national director of the Immigrant Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the Trump administration to end family separation at the border, said in an interview with MSNBC.
“This is unprecedented. This is the worst thing I’ve seen in 25-plus years of doing this civil rights work. I am talking to these mothers, and they are describing their kids screaming, ‘Mommy, mommy, don’t let them take me away.’ Five years old, six years old, and they’re just being ripped away.” -Lee Gelern
On the other hand, experts are approaching the situation of the missing children with more caution.
“Missing" is a misleading term. HHS released these kids into the custody of sponsors, but have since “lost track” of them. What this means in practice is that HHS attempted to call sponsors to follow up and that those calls went unanswered.
Because HHS cannot account for the whereabouts of these children, it’s entirely possible that some of them are in the wrong hands. In 2016, it was revealed that some kids released from HHS custody landed in the hands of traffickers who put them to work on egg farms.
However, this is not the case for most of these children — contrary to claims on social media.
FYI, another point about this: we do not know how many of these children weren’t located because they and their relatives in the US (who might even be their parents!) made the decision to go off the grid to reduce deportation risk.— Dara Lind (@DLind) May 26, 2018
Over the past few years, rampant violence in Central America has caused many migrant children to flock to the border in search of safety. But with recent policy changes under the Trump administration, their fates remain more uncertain than ever before.
Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and reduced inequalities within and among countries is goal number 10. This goal calls for the “orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.” You can take action by calling on the US to adopt a global compact for refugees and migrants here.