Photo via U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Under the guidance of President Donald Trump’s strident anti-immigration stance, U.S. immigration officials and the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are currently in custody of over 10,000 migrant children separated from their parents and guardians.
According to a series of reports from the Washington Post, HHS officials said Tuesday that they were housing some 10,733 non-citizen children — an increase of nearly 2,000 children from the end of April, just 30 days ago.
The spike in migrant minors under HHS custody comes hot on the heels of a new Department of Justice policy put in place by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month that called for prosecutors to pursue as many illegal border crossing charges as possible in a “zero tolerance” approach to undocumented immigration. Because U.S. law enforcement has different standards for adult and childhood arrivals, the new policy has lead to parents being prosecuted and deported, while their kids often remain in the States under HHS supervision.
Per the government’s long-standing “catch and release” policy concerning non-citizen minors, detained adolescents are released to parents or adult relatives in local U.S. communities while they wait for an immigration hearing. It was this program that inspired recent news reports about 1,475 children “missing” from HHS custody. However according to HHS officials, those children have instead been placed in the custody of known families, but their guardians did not immediately respond to recent follow-up checks.
“In the last fiscal year, in 14 percent of those calls, the family didn’t answer the phone,” said top HHS official Steven Wagner to reporters Tuesday. “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.”
But while claims about “lost” migrant children may be exaggerated by the media, the Trump administration’s newly implemented zero-tolerance immigration policy has decidedly increased the number of children torn apart from their parents trying to cross the U.S. border — even if Department of Homeland Security and HHS officials claim that they are simply continuing standard immigration policies practiced by previous presidential administrations
“What’s happened is the exception to the rule is now becoming the rule,” said Wendy Young, president of the advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense. “Here they’re doing zero-tolerance policy to punish families and send a message to their home countries: Don’t do this… This is the most aggressive response to Central American migration we’ve seen to date.”
In a series of tweets and public speeches, President Trump has repeatedly tried to defend his administration’s controversial actions at the border by painting huge swaths of potential Latin American immigrants as members of the transnational MS-13 gang, frequently characterizing Latinx migrants as “animals” and “not human beings.”
At the border, Lee Gelernt, immigration attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), painted a starkly different picture, telling the Post that the real-world consequences of Trump’s policies are “as bad as anything I’ve seen in 25-plus years of doing this work.”
“Little kids are begging and screaming not to be taken from parents, and they’re hauled off,” Gelernt said. “Parents are telling their older kids, ‘Be brave, be brave.’”
With many more children being taken into HHS custody than ever before, the department is running out of room to house unaccompanied children. HHS officials told the Post that the agency currently has 1,300 reserve spaces to provide for incoming minors, but at the rate that immigration officers are prosecuting migrant parents, those beds will be full in a matter of weeks.