In late April, a top Health and Human Services official told Congress that his agency had lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children who had recently left government custody.
Those remarks came under intense and renewed scrutiny over the weekend, particularly in the wake of a new Trump administration policy to separate immigrant children from their parents when apprehended at the border.
Both developments raised concerns about the same issue: how the United States treats children who enter the country without legal status. But the two stories are — in the eyes of many immigration advocates — also quite separate. They worry significantly more about the new policy of separation than the so-called “missing” children, who are believed to be with relatives or sponsors who might have good reasons for not reporting their whereabouts to the federal government.
To understand how these different moving parts fit together, I spoke with Jennifer Podkul, director of policy at Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, that advocates for the rights of unaccompanied minors in the US and represents their cases in court.
She walked me through how she thinks about those 1,475 children who have been described as “missing” in the media, the threats of the Trump administration’s new family separation policy, and what they both mean for undocumented kids.
A transcript of our conversation follows, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Let me start with a really basic question. Did the United States lose 1,500 migrant children?
When a child is apprehended or turns themselves in at the border, they are put into removal proceedings. Immigration court cases start trying to order the child to be deported. Those children are put into a facility run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement [ORR, a division of Health and Human Services]. There are shelters and programs they have all across the country.
When a child is in that program, the government tries to find an adult who is willing to provide care and custody instead of having that child linger in a federal facility. It looks for different categories of people, starting with parents or legal guardians and, if they’re not available, an extended family member. They do a background check on that person.
After 2014 [when there was a wave of unaccompanied minors entering the United States], the government adjusted a lot of policies around reunification. There was concern about kids being reunified to someone who wasn’t appropriate.
Now, HHS has a policy that when they reunify a child with a sponsor in the United States, they call the phone number that the sponsor submitted to the government 30 days afterward. This was their answer to the question of how many of those children were they not able to get in touch with, with that one phone call.
The idea behind those calls was child safety, not about keeping track of kids.
Walk me through the relationship between this population of children whom the government hasn’t been able to reach and the children we’re hearing about now being separated from their parents at the border. Are we talking about the same group of kids here?
The government has instituted a new policy where they have said they want to criminally prosecute any person they apprehend between points of entry, even if they are an asylum seeker and even if they are a parent. They’ve said they want to do this to deter future families from seeking protection in the United States.
When they apprehend the parent, he or she goes over to the US Marshals, and the government has essentially created an unaccompanied minor [by separating the child]. They are treated just like any child who arrives by themselves. So it was unaccompanied minors that HHS didn’t make contact with over the phone, and now they’re putting an incredible burden on HHS by adding 700 new unaccompanied children to that population.
So the kids being separated from their families, they’re essentially being added to the population of unaccompanied minors where that 1,475 number came from?
Can you tell me a little bit about the types of places that these children are being held before they’re reunified with a family member or guardian?
There are several hundred facilities that range from shelters to group homes to wings of juvenile jails that ORR rents. These facilities do have a little bit of an education program, but it’s still federal detention. Even low-security facilities have barbed-wire fences around them, and communication with those outside is monitored. Everybody knows that detention is not good for kids. So the government works hard to find someone whom they can reunify with, so the kid doesn’t have to be in that facility.
What are some of the reasons that families might not answer these phone calls? Is it just the fact that everybody misses call, or something deeper going on?
A lot of these families may have a pay-as-you-go phone number. I definitely had times when I couldn’t get ahold of a client for weeks, then they’d get a new number, and we’d pick up right where we left off.
Right now, under this administration, there is a climate of fear. Parents and families that are undocumented might be scared to pick up the phone. The administration has specifically targeted sponsors of unaccompanied minors. They did raids against them last year.
There is some concern from legislators that these kids might end up in trafficking situations. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said at a hearing that “HHS has a responsibility to better track these children so they aren’t trafficked or abused.” Is that a concern that you share?
This hearing was a follow-up to one in 2015, when it was discovered that two unaccompanied minors ended up in a labor-trafficking situation in Ohio.
Concerns about trafficking are exactly why there are special provisions in the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which was a bipartisan law signed by a Republican president. There is a section of that bill that does two things to try and protect kids, to make sure they aren’t in a vulnerable position. It mandates ORR to provide post-release services, beyond that phone call we talked about earlier, like a home visit to make sure they’re okay.
Right now, less than 1 percent get that post-release service. Congress has already said that we think ORR should do more of this, and we’d love to see Congress provide more funding for it.
The other thing that can make a difference is having an attorney on that child’s case, so there is another responsible adult who is in communication. That really serves as a check not only to make sure the kid is safe, but also makes sure they’re able to comply with the court process.
Obviously people are concerned about whether these kids went missing. But we also want to know, are they able to adjudicate their case? They can only do that if they have the support of an attorney.
Are there some good reasons why we wouldn’t want the government to be tracking this particular population closely?
We do worry about criminalization of this population and the idea of monitoring them like they are criminals. That is not good for them.
I know your organization represents unaccompanied minors in court. What does it mean for you that it looks like we’ll see a new wave of unaccompanied minors, given this new separation policy?
We’re a little bit in panic mode. Already, we were seeing less than 50 percent of unaccompanied minors receive representation, and now they’ve just added hundreds of kids into that group.
These cases get a lot harder when these kids are separated from an adult. If a child has traveled with an adult, the parent often knows the full story of why they’re seeking asylum. They have documents like birth certificates or police reports. But once these kids are separated, they’ve lost communication. It makes our job a lot harder. We spend a lot of time trying to find the parents.
Before two weeks ago, most parents were still in ICE [Immigration and Custom Enforcement] facilities. Now they’re being referred to US Marshal custody. We don’t know how we’ll be able to find them. We’re just now starting the process of figuring out how to keep open that communication, and it’s going to make things harder.