America's missing children: Over 1,000 immigrant minors have vanished since October

The president of the border patrol union calls Trump's plan "a colossal waste of resources." But is that the point?

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 25, 2018 3:49PM (EDT)

 (AP/Evan Vucci/Getty/Herika Martinez/Salon)
(AP/Evan Vucci/Getty/Herika Martinez/Salon)

Nearly 1,500 migrant children were apprehended by authorities in the United States... only to later go missing.

Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, told a Senate homeland security subcommittee that 1,475 migrant children had gone missing since being taken in by authorities, according to The New York Times. He also reported that most of the children were taken in after being found alone on America's southwestern border, having usually fled from domestic violence, gang violence or drug cartels from Central American nations like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The concern is that the missing children could have been turned into unpaid laborers or are being used by human traffickers.

"H.H.S. has a responsibility to better track these children so they aren’t trafficked or abused, and so they show up to their court hearings," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio and chairman of the subcommittee, declared upon learning that the fate of these 1,475 children remained unknown.

After human traffickers forced eight migrant children to work an Ohio egg farm in 2016, the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services Departments agreed to establish joint procedures within one year to prevent such incidents from recurring. They failed to do that by their deadline and still have not established such policies, raising questions about whether they could have protected the migrant children who were discovered on the border if they had done so.

As the Times explained:

Children who show up at the border by themselves are usually apprehended by Border Patrol agents or turn themselves in to customs officers at the Department of Homeland Security. Once they are processed, they are turned over to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ refugee office. The office runs more than 100 shelters around the country where it houses children and provides care until they can be turned over to a sponsor while awaiting their immigration hearings.

The sponsors are usually parents or family members already residing in the United States. The sponsors are supposed to undergo a detailed background check.

After the children have been placed with sponsors, workers at the department follow up with calls to ensure that the minors continue to live with the sponsors, are enrolled in school and are aware of their court dates.

Yet many experts are claiming that the Department of Homeland Security rarely conducts the kinds of follow-ups necessary to make sure the children aren't exploited. President Donald Trump himself made it clear earlier this week that he doesn't sympathize at all with migrant children, telling a roundtable at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center that "we have the worst immigration laws of any country, anywhere in the world. They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.”

He added, with the intent to imply that many of the children grow up to gang members, "They look so innocent. They’re not innocent."

In related news, a new report by the ACLU accused American border authorities of verbally, physically and sexually abusing hundreds of undocumented immigrant children between 2009 and 2014, according to NPR. The allegations include running over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle before punching him, denying medical attention to a pregnant minor who claimed she was in pain and ultimately delivered a stillbirth, sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl and threatening a male minor with sexual abuse from another detainee after discarding his birth certificate.

"These agencies have taken no meaningful action to hold federal officials accountable for abusing children or to ensure that such abuse never occurs again," Mitra Ebadolahi, staff attorney with the ACLU's Border Litigation Project, told NPR.

Despite these harrowing stories, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it an official policy to separate the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents if they are apprehended, which he has characterized as a deterrent against illegal border crossings. This is a policy that has unofficially been in place for months, but earlier this month he traveled to Tennessee (where 97 workers had been arrested during an immigration raid at a meat processing plant) to make it clear that he had no sympathy for the afflicted parents.

"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," Sessions proclaimed.

Ironically enough, the leader of a union representing members of the U.S. Border Patrol has recently been very critical of Trump's immigration policies. National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, who represents roughly 15,000 border agents, described the measures implemented by Trump last month to improve border security as "a colossal waste of resources," according to the Los Angeles Times.

He added, "When I found out the National Guard was going to be on the border, I was extremely excited," even though the policy has not made the Border Patrol's job easier as it had done in the past.

Trump, it is worth remembering, focused on immigration during the 2016 presidential campaign, even kicking off his candidacy with a speech that included this infamous (and factually incorrect) assertion about undocumented immigrants from Mexico:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

As the ACLU study clearly demonstrates, abuses toward American immigrants hardly began during the Trump era. Yet considering that he has made stopping illegal immigration into one of his central causes and has failed to deliver on it — and considering that there is abundant evidence that our system often mistreats the people it apprehends, perhaps it's time to reevaluate whether the narrative that Trump kicked off three years ago is the one that America really needs right now.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Border Patrol Donald Trump Ice Jeff Sessions