Trump's immigration policy will separate kids from their parents. But don't confuse them with 'lost' children

The Trump administration's new immigration policy will mean more children being removed from their parents at the U.S. border. What the policy hasn't done is create a generation of "lost" children who dropped off the government's radar. Here's what to know about the "zero tolerance" policy.

Experts expect 'layers of trauma' for kids fleeing their home countries, only to be separated from parents

A Mexican child peers through the border fence near El Paso, Texas. President George W. Bush erected more than 1,100 kilometres of fencing along the border in 2007 to beef up border security. (Jason Burles/CBC)

The Trump administration's new "zero tolerance" immigration policy will result in more children being removed from their parents while trying to cross the U.S. border — and it's a "cruel" practice to break up families this way, immigration rights advocates say.

But what the policy hasn't done is create a generation of "lost" children who dropped off the radar of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as suggested over the weekend by an alarming viral hashtag.

In fact, migrant lawyers warn, well-intentioned calls for the government to find the young migrants out of concern for their well-being might actually put the kids — and their sponsors — in immigration jeopardy.

Here's what you need to know about the new immigration policy, and the truth about those reports that the government has lost track of child migrants.

What is the actual story?

Immigrants from El Salvador who entered the country illegally walk through a bus station after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio, Texas, in this 2015 file photo. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

It's actually two separate stories, and some Trump critics conflated them.

There were the true stories about an immigration policy on separating families detained at the border. And there were false stories that some 1,475 of those migrant children had gone missing after being taken from their parents, some of whom were now possibly in the hands of human traffickers.

As a result, the hashtag #WhereAreTheChildren began trending wildly last week. The problem is the narrative about the Trump administration losing track of kids torn from their migrant parents was inaccurate.

It's ultimately a mish-mash of two different immigration matters.

Part of the confusion comes from the public's misinterpretation last week of reports in the New York Times and the Associated Press. The outlets reported that the HHS, which is in charge of refugee resettlement, had not been able to account for 1,475 children during a household check-in last fall.

Some activists began saying these kids were separated from their parents due to the Trump administration's new policy. But the important difference is that those migrant children never arrived at the border with their parents.

The so-called "lost" children actually came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors, making the trek alone.

So, yes, under a new U.S. immigration policy, parents are being separated from their children, including babies, when they arrive at the border. But no, those 1,475 migrant children were not among them.

Is it correct to describe the children as 'lost'?

Children stand by a new section of the border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on May 3. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Not really, said Paige Austin, an immigration attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

According to the NYCLU, the majority of children, 90 per cent, released from custody are placed with a parent or immediate relative, and the remaining 10 per cent are placed with an adult with whom they had a pre-existing relationship.

"Upon release, they continue to be immigration proceedings, but they go to school, they live with a family — they're just like any other children in the United States," Austin said.

What's more, all the department's Office of Refugee Resettlement did was place one phone call to households for a one-month check-in. It's probable that if nobody answered, it was because those children — or their guardians — didn't want to be found.

The failure of 1,475 families to answer the phone on one occasion in the fall of 2017 "isn't something people need to be concerned about," Austin said.

Anti-Trump voices expressed an outpouring of concern, demanding the government relocate the children, for fear they may have ended up in human-trafficking rings. But sponsor families may also have reason to want to lay low, considering they're now required to share the entire household's immigration statuses with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"I wouldn't say it means the children are missing," Austin said. "But I would caution that we don't want immigration authorities more closely monitoring families, particularly given the immigration agencies' enforcement for the Trump administration."

So what's the new immigration policy we're hearing about?

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, right, announced that anybody who enters the U.S. unlawfully is going to face criminal prosecution for that act. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

In early May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that anybody who enters the U.S. unlawfully is going to face criminal prosecution for that act, calling it a deterrence policy.

"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," Sessions said. "If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."

Within a 13-day span this month, the Department of Homeland Security prosecuted 638 parents who crossed the border with children.

"Something like 700 families have been separated in the past two weeks," said Texas immigration lawyer Manoj Govindaiah. "And so now those children are unaccompanied. But they had reached the border with their parents."

What does that mean for asylum-seekers?

Within a 13-day span this month, the Department of Homeland Security prosecuted 638 parents who crossed the border with children. (Jason Burles/CBC)

It's a problem, Govindaiah said, because if anyone wants to claim asylum, they must physically enter the U.S. to do it.

"If I'm Honduran and coming from Honduras, I have to get here to the U.S., and then request asylum. Coming to the United States and requesting asylum is legal under international and national laws," he said.

"This is now the criminalization of asylum-seekers now being penalized for the way they're coming to the U.S. and seeking protection."

How were families treated at the border in the past?

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent leads journalists on a tour through the Pena Blanca Canyon in Arizona, close to the Mexican border, in this 2013 file photo. (Samantha Sais/Reuters)

Historically, if a family group arrives together, "the general policy was in favour of trying to keep families together," said Elizabeth Frankel, associate director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, which was founded to advocate for the best interests of unaccompanied migrant children.

Whether a migrant presents themselves at the border and asks for protection, or crosses the border unlawfully and is apprehended, "in either case, the U.S. immigration officials have a lot of discretion in terms of what happens to that individual," she said.

The idea was the family should not be separated. But starting about six months ago, Frankel said, "we did start to see a rise in the numbers of parents and children being separated at the border by immigration officials."

Was there any basis for Trump to blame Democrats for this 'horrible law'?

It's not a new "law." It's a new policy.

Here's what Trump tweeted:

Under U.S. law, entering the country illegally is a crime. But children, as minors, wouldn't be charged. And the Democrats did not enact a law to separate children from their parents at the border if crossing illegally.

The White House has blamed the Democrats for failing to act on immigration legislation in the past, saying it has led to what it calls the current border crisis.

But the Republicans currently control Congress and the "zero tolerance" immigration policy — including the decision to separate kids and parents — was the brainchild of the Trump administration.

What happens to kids who are separated from their parents?

Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has defended the Trump administration's new immigration policy. (Erin Schaff/Reuteres)

Under federal law, most children will get placed at detention facilities specific to children. Most adults would get placed in separate adult-specific facilities. There are just three family detention centres in the U.S.

Even though the children may have arrived to the border with their parents, once they're separated, they'd be considered "unaccompanied children" and transferred to the custody of Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of HHS.

The Department of Homeland Security oversees the adults.

The average prolonged detention for children at ORR shelter while waiting for a placement was 41 days in fiscal year 2017, according to HHS stats. The average stay for children in 2018, up until April, was 57 days.

How easy is it to reunite the families?

A view of the Nogales, Ariz., side of the U.S.-Mexico border is shown in February 2017. (Jason Burles/CBC)

It's very complicated, according to Frankel.

"The kids often get sent to facilities for children, in many cases thousands of miles away from their parents," she said. "Parents end up in adult detention facilities fairly close to where they were apprehended."

Parents are sometimes prosecuted criminally for unlawful entry, and may have to serve time before being transferred to the immigration detention system. It can take months for them to make contact with their children or even find out what city they're living in, Frankel said.

ICE has reportedly said it's creating a hotline in immigration facilities so that parents taken away from their children at the border can more easily locate their kids, Austin said.

What effect does this separation have on the kids?

These barracks for U.S. law enforcement trainees in Artesia, N.M. were turned into immigrant detention centre. (Joan Carlos Llorca/Associated Press)

The trauma increases the longer the children are detained, Frankel said.

"It's traumatizing to have no information about your parents and to be in this completely different environment. It's heartbreaking," she said.

The Young Center often serves as child advocates in cases where children are aged three or younger, Frankel said.

"We see kids who can't sleep, can't eat, that are regressing developmentally, that cry all the time," she said, adding that children have already endured "layers of trauma."

"The journey is traumatic, they're separated from family members, they have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, high levels of anxiety," Austin added. "And trauma is what caused them to flee in the first place."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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