The Corner

Immigration

Did the Feds Lose 1,475 Migrant Children?

Children traveling with a caravan of migrants from Central America play on the beach near the border fence between Mexico and the U.S., prior to preparations for an asylum request in the U.S., in Tijuana, Mexico April 29, 2018. (Jorge Duenes/Reuters)

That’s what you would conclude from this USA Today opinion piece headlined, “The feds lost — yes, lost — 1,475 migrant children.” It’s a piece that’s a pretty good example of how “fake news” works — there’s some factual basis for the claim, but it’s exaggerated or misunderstood, and then fed into the maw of the perpetual outrage cycle, in this case about the alleged extreme carelessness and heartlessness of the Trump administration toward migrant children.

Some background: As we all know, in recent years there has been a flood of “unaccompanied children” (UAC) showing up at the border. The U.S. government attempts to unite UAC with a parent or close relative in the U.S. The HHS program to do this is longstanding and long pre-dated the Trump administration.

Given the size of the migrant flow, the scale of this task is enormous. The USA Today piece cites this congressional testimony by HHS official Steven Wagner who oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) as its source. Wagner relates the numbers:

In fiscal year (FY) 2017, 40,810 children were referred to ORR from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In FY 2018 (through March), we have had 21,574 referrals. Although March and April of FY 2017 had the lowest referrals since FY 2012, referrals started to slowly increase in May of 2017, and today are significantly higher than just a couple of months ago. To illustrate, in March 2017, ORR had 755 referrals; while in March 2018, ORR had 4,204 referrals.

Most are placed with parents or close relatives:

In FY 2017, children typically stayed in ORR custody for 51 days and so far in FY 2018 (through March) average length of stay has been 56 days. ORR releases the majority of UAC to sponsors. In FY 2017, ORR released 93 percent of children to a sponsor. Of those, ORR released 49 percent to parents, 41 percent to close relatives, and 10 percent to other-than-close relatives or non-relatives. In FY 2018, we have released 90 percent of children to individual sponsors and of those sponsors, 41 percent were parents, 47 percent were close relatives, and 11 percent were other-than-close relatives or non-relatives.

There is a system of sponsor assessments that since early 2016 has been enhanced, according to Wagner:

In the area of home studies, ORR made two significant policy changes in March 2016. A home study is an in-depth investigation of the potential sponsor’s ability to ensure the child’s safety and well-being. The process includes background checks of the sponsor and adult household members, home visits, in-person interviews of the proposed sponsor and possibly interviews with other household members, and post-release services. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA of 2008) mandates home studies in certain situations, but the March 2016 policy changes led to an increase in discretionary home studies, which are home studies that are not required by law. One of these policy changes focused on tender age UAC. ORR began requiring home studies for all UAC 12 years of age and younger being released to non-relative sponsors. The other change underscored the need for case managers and case coordinators, who have direct contact with UAC, to recommend home studies, even if not required by the TVPRA of 2008, if they think a home study would provide additional information required to determine that the sponsor is able to care for the health, safety, and well-being of the child.

Wagner also notes this improvement:

Another step in improving the safety of releases is to contact the child and the sponsor shortly after release, which is a critical adjustment period. To accomplish this, ORR initiated safety and well-being calls. A case manager contacts the child and the sponsor 30 days after release. The case manager confirms that the child is still residing with the sponsor, is enrolled in school, is aware of upcoming court dates, and, most importantly, is safe. If the case manager, or any other ORR grantee or contractor that has contact with a released child, has a concern about the child’s safety or well-being, they are required to take steps under ORR’s new “post-release reporting system for notifications of concern.”

And this is where the USA Today piece comes in. It fastens on this passage:

From October to December 2017, ORR attempted to reach 7,635 UAC and their sponsors. Of this number, ORR reached and received agreement to participate in the safety and well-being call from approximately 86 percent of sponsors. From these calls, ORR learned that 6,075 UAC remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight UAC had run away, five had been removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to live with a non-sponsor. ORR was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC. Based on the calls, ORR referred 792 cases, which were in need of further assistance, to the National Call Center for additional information and services.

Of course, all the context is left out of the USA Today piece, which at one point falsely says, “the federal government has lost — yes, lost — 1,475 migrant children in its custody.” But these children weren’t in HHS custody. They were placed with sponsors that HHS vetted. It’d obviously be better if HHS could locate all of the sponsors in its follow-up. Some of them surely moved, and perhaps others, if they or family members are illegal immigrants, may not want to be in further contact with authorities.

I’m sure this program can be improved in all sort of ways, like all government programs. But the root of the problem is that unaccompanied children are showing up at our border, a situation that is fraught with peril. We should be doing all we can to stop that flow so a federal bureaucracy doesn’t have responsibility for finding adults to care for them, but the same people frothing with outrage over the USA Today piece have very little interest in trying to do that.

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