(RNN) – Friday was National Missing Children’s Day, which put renewed attention on revelations from last month that the government had lost track of almost 1,500 migrant children placed with sponsor caretakers.
The children in this case are among a cohort who have arrived unaccompanied at the border this decade in waves, most fleeing violence in Central American countries wracked by violence such as Honduras and El Salvador.
Typically, their first contact after crossing the border is law enforcement, who will process them and turn their care over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement will then place them in one of about 100 shelters it runs around the country, or with sponsors.
Last month, though, an official in the department’s Administration for Children and Families, Steven Wagner, testified before the Senate that during a review of more than 7,600 children who had recently arrived and been placed with a sponsor, 1,475 could not with certainty be accounted for.
According to Customs and Border Protection figures for the 2018 fiscal year, between October and December last year – when the review was conducted – more than 21,000 such minors arrived at the southwest border.
In the 2017 fiscal year, more than 41,000 arrived in total.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH, the chairman of the committee Wagner testified in front of, said during the hearing: “It’s just a system that has so many gaps, so many opportunities for these children to fall between the cracks, that we just don’t know what’s going on — how much trafficking or abuse or simply immigration law violations are occurring.”
A number of Twitter users in the last couple days reacted anew to the story, and tied it to Friday’s missing children’s day, which was established in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.
“This is an extraordinary scandal,” wrote Simon Rosenberg, the founder of a liberal Washington think tank who worked on President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
And Mindy Finn, who was the running mate for former CIA officer Evan McMullin’s independent presidential campaign in 2016, said it was “unconscionable” that the children were unaccounted for.
“These are kids seeking refuge through no fault of their own. America is, or should be, better than this,” she wrote.
“The Department of Health and Human Services told Congress that it has lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children it placed with sponsors. Most are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence + domestic abuse.” https://t.co/mB7o7ze0UB
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) May 25, 2018
In his testimony Wagner did not say that the children were necessarily no longer with sponsors, but that only 86 percent of caretakers agreed to participate in a “safety and well-being call” the refugee resettlement office made to conduct the review.
“ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC (unaccompanied children),” Wagner said.
Examining the shortfall, Wagner noted that Health and Human Services' position is that it is not legally responsible for the children once they are released to sponsors.
“However, considering the importance of the post-release period, we are taking a fresh look at that question as a matter of both legal interpretation and appropriate policy,” he said.
He said that if the office were to remain legally responsible for the children in some way, managing that responsibility “would require a significant expansion of the current program structure and an increase in resources.”
Many Twitter users conflated Wagner’s testimony with reports of law enforcement separating migrant parents from their children.
That number, however, is itself in the hundreds.
The New York Times reported last month, citing data from the refugee resettlement office it reviewed, that “more than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October, including more than 100 children under the age of 4.”
The figures stand to go higher, under stiffer enforcement policies against those crossing the border illegally the Trump administration has promised.
“If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said earlier this month. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
Leading Democrats, such as Sen. Kamala Harris of California, have criticized the administration's stance.
"Breaking up immigrant families and separating children from their parents is wrong," she wrote on Facebook earlier this month. "We can keep America safe without being callous."
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