The Trump administration has likely lost track of nearly 6,000 unaccompanied migrant children, thousands more than lawmakers were alerted to last month, according to a McClatchy review of federal data.
Federal officials acknowledged last month that nearly 1,500 unaccompanied minors arrived on the southern border alone without their parents and were placed with sponsors who did not keep in touch with federal officials, but those numbers were only a snapshot of a three- month period during the last fiscal year.
“There is a lot more,” said a field specialist who worked in the Office of Refugee Resettlement until earlier this year and was tasked with reaching out to sponsors and children to check on their well-being. “You can bet that the numbers are higher. It doesn’t really give you a real picture.”
The new estimate comes as backlash widens over President Donald Trump's' decision to separate parents and children. Advocates argue the growing numbers of unaccounted children should be expected as families and sponsors become more fearful of federal officials that is now using information from government social workers to run immigration checks and, in some cases, target sponsors, including parents and family members, for removal.
“To the extent that there are problems for protection of unaccompanied children, this will only become worse as they put more kids in the unaccompanied category by ripping them away from their families,” said Clara Long, U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The revelation that federal officials couldn’t locate more than 1,000 children set off an outcry of concern and promises from the Trump administration to implement stronger vetting procedures of sponsors, including fingerprinting parents and handing their immigration status to Department of Homeland Security officials.
Federal officials said the children were not actually lost, but their sponsors didn’t respond to phone calls checking on them. They emphasized that Office of Refugee Resettlement is no longer legally responsible for the children once they were placed in a sponsor’s custody.
Since 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have been apprehended during a surge of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan mothers and children who have flooded the U.S. border fleeing violence and poverty.
Unaccompanied children are generally turned over to the custody of ORR, which will either care for them in a shelter or release them to a family member.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told McClatchy in Miami that 50 percent of the kids end up with their parents as their sponsors.
"About 40 percent on average end up with other family members here in the United States," Azar said. "And about 10 percent or so end up with non-related individuals, maybe foster care, other volunteers who want to take the child in. So that’s really what our mission is: Is to care for them once given to us. Get them into a safe environment and out to sponsors as soon as possible."
Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged that the location of 1,475 unaccompanied children placed were sponsors couldn’t be determined.
Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, told reporters that 14 percent of HHS calls to sponsors were not returned.
But to come up with the 1,475 cases, the administration reached out to only 7,635 children and their sponsors. It placed more than 42,497 unaccompanied children with sponsors in fiscal year 2017.
HHS told McClatchy it didn’t have the data of unaccounted children in a reportable format. But based on its own estimates that 14 percent didn't return calls, some 5,945 unaccompanied children are likely unaccounted for. The numbers would be even higher in fiscal year 2016, which included the end of President Barack Obama’s final term when the administration placed more than 52,000 children with sponsors.
In 2017, ORR released 93 percent of children to a sponsor. Of those, 49 percent were released to parents, 41 percent to close relatives, and 10 percent to other-than-close relatives or non-relatives. So far in fiscal year 2018, the administration 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.
HHS officials say it’s not the administration’s legal responsibility to locate those children after they’re turned over to the custody of a family member or approved sponsor. And they add that it’s difficult to keep tabs on sponsors who often also are living in the country illegally, move often, and may not want to be located.
“You can imagine that many of those would not choose to speak to a federal official calling them on the phone,” Wagner told reporters. “But there’s no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids. If you call a friend and they don’t answer the phone, you don’t assume that they’ve been kidnapped. So that characterization that the kids are missing is incorrect. And I just want to emphasize that they are not in our custody at the point at which that voluntary phone call is made.”
The reality is the Trump administration — and the Obama administration beforehand — has lost track and continues to lose track of thousands of unaccompanied minors while ORR does not appear to be trying to keep track of the children once they’re placed with sponsors.
Among the 7,635 children and sponsors the administration tried to reach, Wagner said that 6,075 remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight children had run away, five had been deported, and 52 had been relocated to live with a non-sponsor. ORR was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475.
The field specialist told McClatchy the goal was not only to speak with the sponsor, but specifically with the children. “I’d ask are you sleeping? Have you been eating well? Have you been having nightmares? Do you have your own bed and your own room?” the specialist said.
But they wouldn’t make follow up calls if the sponsor or child didn’t answer. And more and more calls went unanswered, especially in communities where immigration enforcement had recently occurred.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who serves as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, noted in a recent that 1,475 is actually a higher percentage citing that some sponsors did answer phone calls and said they couldn’t locate the children.
“It's actually over 19 percent based on your own data because sometimes you placed a call, you got someone on the line and said I don't know where the kid is,” Portman told Wagner during a recent congressional hearing.
A 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush placed all children who arrive at U.S. borders and ports of entry without a parent or guardian under the care and custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Under President Barack Obama this issue grabbed national attention when, in 2015, it was discovered that HHS did not require any meaningful proof that the people who presented themselves as family friends really were who they said they were.
In one high-profile case, HHS allowed six migrant children from Guatemala to be turned over to traffickers who forced them to work in grueling conditions on an Ohio egg farm.
Those McClatchy has spoken with, including case managers, say even the reported numbers are low considering they were called after 30 days. Many more will leave after six months.
“Which means the number of lost kids are being dramatically underrepresented,” said Leon Fresco, a deputy assistant attorney general under Obama. “1,500 is only half the story. It’s one year and we’re not even talking about the entire Trump administration.”
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, said the larger number of unaccounted for children is not surprising.
Sharry said many of the children are placed with family members who are in the United States illegally and may be afraid to speak to federal authorities, even if they are just trying to check on children because of "a climate of fear."
"What’s happened is that ICE has a new policy of going after sponsors," he said. "The bigger story if not that they are losing people - it's that ICE is terrorizing people."
Daniel Chang of the Miami Herald contributed.