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What Happens When A Child Arrives At The U.S. Border?

Children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border alone are detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and put in detention facilities.

A child traveling with a caravan of migrants from Central America sleeps at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint, after U.S. border authorities allowed the first small group of women and children entry from Mexico overnight, in Tijuana, Mexico.
Photo via PBS NewsHour
A child traveling with a caravan of migrants from Central America sleeps at a camp near the San Ysidro checkpoint, after U.S. border authorities allowed the first small group of women and children entry from Mexico overnight, in Tijuana, Mexico.

Over the past week, Twitter has been overtaken with the question: #WhereAreTheMissingChildren?

It was a response to reports that the Trump administration "lost" nearly 1,500 unaccompanied migrant children that the government had placed in the homes of sponsors. But the hashtag also became a catchall for outrage over the administration's "zero-tolerance" policy against families who cross in the U.S. illegally, which according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, includes separating children from their parents at the border.

The 1,500 figure first surfaced in April, when a top official from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the care of unaccompanied minors, disclosed at a Senate subcommittee hearing that 1,475 out of 7,635 children the agency tried to reach over a period of three months could not be accounted for in the agency's follow-up welfare checks.

Separately, some immigration advocates have pointed to new HHS data that indicates the number of migrant children taken into U.S. custody has surged by 21 percent in the past month as evidence that border agents are more frequently separating parents from their children at the border. The Trump administration said the focus of its recent crackdown is on illegal border crossings, not separating families.

It's not immediately clear how Trump's policies are affecting children who arrive at the border alone, or those who are being separated from their parents. But here's what we know about how both groups of minors are treated when they try to enter the country.

Amna Nawaz explains what we really know about minors who have been separated from their parents, or who arrive at the border alone.

What happens to unaccompanied children arriving at the border?

Children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border alone are detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and put in detention facilities. The government formally classifies them as "unaccompanied alien children" — those under 18 without a lawful immigration status who have no parent in the U.S., or no parent or legal guardian to provide physical custody. This triggers a few legal protections as they move through the immigration system.

Under federal law, the temporary detention, care and placement of unaccompanied children falls in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of Health and Human Services. Unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Canada go through a screening and repatriation process at the border. Children from other countries, however, are placed into one of about 100 shelters nationwide while they work their way through the immigration system.

The shelters, run by nonprofit organizations backed by federal grants, are responsible for assessing the child's needs and providing services such as medical care and classroom education. They are also tasked with finding and screening suitable adult "sponsors," which include parents or friends of family who can take custody of the child in the U.S. Upon release to a sponsor, the children are directed to pro bono attorneys who can represent them in deportation proceedings.

How many children has the agency processed?

The U.S. has seen some surges of children at the border in recent years, most notably in 2014, when the government said 47,000 unaccompanied minors in the first five months of the year. The government has not said how many children have been filtered through this system since the Trump's administration's recent "zero-tolerance policy." But, overall, HHS said this week that 10,773 migrant children were under the agency's care. That's up from 8,886 in April.

What about the children who are separated from their parents when they cross the border illegally?

In April, Sessions announced a "zero-tolerance" policy toward illegal immigration, vowing to prosecute anyone caught crossing the border illegally. For children traveling with their parents, the new policy means that they will be separated at the border and taken into government custody while their parents are placed in federal jails.

Within 13 days of instituting this policy, 658 children were separated from their parents, according to a Customs and Border Protection official who testified at a Senate hearing last week. While these children did not arrive at the border alone, they are essentially rendered unaccompanied by the government when they are separated from their parents and taken in by Health and Human Services.

The president himself has blamed Democrats for an existing law that separates families at the border. But no current law actually mandates this, according to Politifact.

What about the "lost" 1,475 children?

After a child is placed with a sponsor, and while they await deportation proceedings, the government conducts a one-time welfare check by phone.

In a statement on Monday, Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said this was an "additional step" not required of the agency, and that a lack of response from sponsors does not mean a child is lost, but might opt to not pick up phone calls fear of being deported.

"The reason many sponsors cannot be reached is because they themselves are illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities," he said.

Broader issues with the government's placement process

But there are broader issues with how unaccompanied children are handled, a problem that predates the Trump administration, according to a 2015 report issued by a congressional watchdog group, which called the interagency process to be "inefficient and vulnerable to error."

Among the problems cited in that report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office: federal officials weren't properly identifying and screening potential sponsors before releasing children to them.

At the Senate hearing on the issue in late April, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also cited a 2014 case in his home state in which the agency released eight Guatemalan teens to traffickers. Officials failed to "respond to red flags," Portman said — namely, that sponsors who were sponsoring several unaccompanied minors may be involved in human trafficking. Frontline examined this case and others for its "Trafficked in America" documentary.

The trafficking case prompted a congressional investigation and hearing into the child placement process, and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations tasked the two agencies with coming up with a clearer delineation of their roles. More than two years later, a plan has yet to be finalized, a fact that angered Portman, who noted that the agencies "blew past" their original deadline.

"We care because these kids regardless of their immigration status deserve to be properly treated, not abused or trafficked," he said.

Some other issues:

There's not a ‘clear path' on how to safeguard children once they are released to sponsors

While the process for transferring detained children into shelters is guided by laws meant to protect them, such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, what happens to unaccompanied children after they are released to sponsors is far less clear, said Jessica Ramos, a lawyer with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Ohio.

Other than Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which contacts the children with a notice to appear in immigration court, no state or local entities are notified when children are placed with sponsors in their communities.

Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary at Health and Human Services, has said the agency does not have "additional legal responsibility" for minors after they are relocated with sponsors, and suggested at-risk children be entrusted to local child protection agencies.

Some lawmakers have agreed that more involvement from local agencies would be a step in the right direction, but Ramos said some advocates see that approach as a double-edged sword.

"I think the idea is that all these organizations would step up and help, but realistically that's not always what we see on the ground," she said. "Especially in some rural areas whether there may not be a large immigrant population or where they may be some anti-immigrant sentiment."

Legal representation is not a guarantee

Immigration hearings are a critical moment for checking if children are where they are supposed to be when they get released from custody. Yet according to Kathryn Larin of the Government Accountability Office, who testified in a hearing last month, 58 percent of children have failed to show up at their hearings so far in 2018.

Attorneys are supposed to play an important role in the process by helping ensure that children comply with immigration court proceedings and do not fall off the radar. Lawyers can also offer children another adult to rely on, when a sponsor is not fulfilling their responsibilities.

But nearly 29 percent of unaccompanied children whose cases began in 2015 are still without legal representation, and that number jumps to 76 percent for children whose cases began last year, according to Syracuse University's TRAC database, which compiles statistics on the issue. While every child has a right to representation, few have the financial resources to hire an attorney and the law only requires Health and Human Services to ensure legal representation "to the greatest extent practicable" — which in many cases simply involves giving the children and their sponsors a list of pro bono lawyers.

The availability of post-release services is improving, but still limited

All children receive phone calls 30 days after being placed with a sponsor to check on their safety and well-being. But only children deemed vulnerable, including those who have been released to non-relative sponsors, receive further support from the refugee office.

"By the time I meet with my clients, ORR has abdicated all responsibility for them," Ramos said at the Senate hearing last month. She has represented more than 400 unaccompanied children throughout Ohio since 2008 and said she has only seen a handful of her clients receive post-release services.

The number of children receiving post-release services, which may range from medical care to family counseling, has increased in recent years. According to the GAO, fewer than 10 percent of children in 2014 received these services. That number has jumped to 32 percent in 2017. Yet Ramos sees a need for more access to services, especially for teenagers who might experience a rocky transition when placed with family members or parents they have not seen in years.

Limited funding makes providing the full range of services difficult, said Katie Kuennen of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a group that relies largely on federal funding from the refugee office.

"Only a small percentage of the kids had that sort of safety net and monitoring," Kuennen said of the children she's worked with.

What now?

A spokesman for Portman's office told the PBS NewsHour that Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security have said they would complete an outline for improving the placement process by July 30.

When contacted by the NewsHour, neither agency offered specific details on what the outline might include.

Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan says he sees a lot of sad situations with parents being separated from children, but he has a job to do.

The Trump administration has proposed several changes to how the U.S. handles unaccompanied minors trying to enter the country, including those it says would make it easier to detain and deport migrant children and harder for those children to seek asylum.

The "crisis" at the border is "the exclusive product of loopholes in federal immigration law that Democrats refuse to close," White House senior adviser Stephen Miller said in a conference call Tuesday with reporters.

For months, the administration has argued that children who arrive at the border by themselves but have a parent in the U.S. with whom they can be reunified should not be given "unaccompanied" status. According to the Washington Post, proposed regulations being drafted by the Justice and Homeland Security departments would officially change how this designation is granted, by giving immigration judges more discretion in deciding whether a child deserves the status and the special legal protections it comes with.