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Families Separated at the Border: Understanding What's Going On

Immigrant Child Separated from Mom at Border

In recent days, many people have become alarmed at the news that children are being taken from their families at the border when their parent or parents are criminally charged with crossing the border illegally. Around the same time, news broke that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lost track of 1,475 children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, these stories, each upsetting on their own, have gotten mixed together, creating an even more disturbing narrative. While the facts give ample cause for concern, it is important not to confuse what is going on and to understand the truth of these separate situations.

Did the Government Really Lose Almost 1500 Children?

Yes, in the sense that those children children's current whereabouts cannot be determined by phone. But they were not taken from their parents' arms and simply placed somewhere without record. The children who cannot be located were unaccompanied minors.

Usually, when children arrive at the border without a parent or guardian, they are either apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol or turned in to customs officers at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They are then processed and released into the custody of the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Until these children can be placed with a sponsor, they receive care at one of over a hundred shelters operated by ORR.

The sponsors with whom the children are eventually placed are typically parents or other family members who live in the United States. Before the children are placed in their care, these sponsors are supposed to be thoroughly vetted.

Once the children are placed, ORR employees are supposed to follow up on the placement with calls to determine that the children are still with their sponsors and attending school, as well as to make sure they know of their upcoming court dates.

The 1,475 children who were apparently lost in 2017 may not be lost at all; it is possible that their sponsors simply were not able to be reached by phone. Sponsors may themselves be undocumented immigrants and be wary of remaining in contact with the government, so they refuse to answer calls. In other words, the children may be exactly where they are supposed to be, but ORR cannot confirm this.

This is, of course, the best-case scenario. Some immigration advocates charge that ORR has not followed up as they were supposed to, and that children were placed in unsafe situations to begin with or that sponsors have not enrolled children in school, forcing them to work or otherwise trafficking them instead. In any case, however, allegations that children are being taken from their parents at the border and then lost are misleading.

Are Children Being Taken From Their Parents at the Border?

Yes. Recently a caravan of migrants from Central America crossed the border into the United States. Eleven members of that group are being criminally prosecuted for the illegal crossing. The Trump administration has expressed its intention to implement a "zero tolerance" policy for illegal crossings at the country's southwestern border.

At least four members of the group that crossed and who were being prosecuted had children taken away from them and placed in custody. This is not an isolated incident; since October, hundreds of children have been separated from their parents after crossing the U.S. border, according to the government. The Trump administration's new policy, which calls for all illegal border crossings to be criminally prosecuted, should only serve to increase that number in the months to come.

This family separation policy is intended to act as a deterrent to families from Central America trying to enter the United States illegally. United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated, "If you cross the Southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”

This is a departure from how the U.S. has traditionally responded to immigration violations. In the past, such violations were treated as civil in nature, not criminal. Families were released after apprehension to await civil deportation hearings. Therefore, it was not necessary to take parents into custody and separate them from their children. Despite some assertions from the current administration, there is not any current law mandating family separations; this is a policy implemented within the last few months.

If you have concerns about an immigrant who has been taken into custody or criminally prosecuted after crossing the U.S. Border, contact an experienced immigration attorney. We invite you to contact our law office for these or any other questions you may have regarding U.S. immigration law and policy.

Categories: Immigration Law