Migrant children peek through the border fence separating the U.S. and Mexico. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The internet had some extreme mood swings during the past couple weeks.

First, a story from April resurfaced detailing how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had “lost track” of 1,475 unaccompanied immigrant children, spurring the hashtag #WhereAretheChildren. Separately, excruciating stories have trickled out involving a new administration policy under which parents and their children arriving at the border would be separated while the adults were prosecuted for immigration crimes like illegal entry.

The New Yorker reports that the Trump administration began separating children from their parents last summer, before the “zero-tolerance” prosecution policy — in which officials are criminally charging as many illegal border-crossing cases as they can — was officially announced in April. Between October and April, according to the New York Times, approximately 700 children were separated from their parent or guardian they arrived with at the border. A recent congressional hearing revealed that 658 more children were separated from their parents between May 6 and 19, after this “zero-tolerance” prosecution policy went into effect.

Many people began to conflate the children the government had lost track of with the children being separated from their parents at the border.

Soon, the pendulum had swung the other way. There was an onslaught of fact-checks and explainers making the case that the “lost” children weren’t actually lost, and explaining how the 1,475 children were different from those being separated from their parents at the border.

I spoke with immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs, who has represented many unaccompanied minors — migrant children who show up at the border without a guardian — to try to parse what’s happening. As Jacobs puts it, “There’s a lot of heat around this topic, but not a lot of light.”

Let’s start by distinguishing between “unaccompanied minors” and the children who are being separated from their parents at the border so federal prosecutors can prosecute their parents.

“Unaccompanied minors,” Jacobs said, are migrants under the age of 18, who make their way to the U.S. border without a parent or guardian. That’s a different group than the children who are being separated from their parents at the border. Once they are separated from their parents, though, they are being handled similarly to unaccompanied minors.

The children can’t remain in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, which apprehends them at the border, so they are placed in facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is a division of Health and Human Services.

There are two small shelters for unaccompanied minors, run by contractor Southwest Key Programs, in Lemon Grove and El Cajon, but many children are sent elsewhere. You may recall some drama in Escondido back in 2015, when the City Council refused to allow a shelter for unaccompanied minors to be built and was sued by the San Diego American Civil Liberties Union.

The vast majority of unaccompanied minors are released to “sponsors,” who are generally relatives of the child. In fiscal year 2017, only about 7 percent of unaccompanied children stayed in facilities. So far in fiscal year 2018, that number has increased to 10 percent, according to the Washington Post.

As several news outlets reported, HHS officials made a single phone call to each sponsor to determine the status of the children placed with them prior to a congressional hearing; the 1,475 who had sponsors who didn’t pick up the phone were then listed with whereabouts unknown. HHS makes the phone calls to the sponsors 30 days after children leave their custody, Jennifer Podkul, the director of a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that advocated on behalf of unaccompanied minors in the U.S., told Vox last week.

As Steve Wagner, a top HHS official, told reporters last week, “In the last fiscal year, in 14 percent of those calls, the family didn’t answer the phone, 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.”

Jacobs said she’s disturbed by the lack of infrastructure for parents to track down information about children they’ve been separated from.

“What bothers me about this whole situation is you have all these family members, including very young children, being separated into different facilities and then within the facility, they have limited communication — mom doesn’t have a cell phone in the detention center, she just has access to these payphones where you can call collect,” Jacobs said. “How is she even going to begin navigating trying to find her son who is being sheltered in an [Office of Refugee Resettlement] facility? Where does she even start?”

Most immigrants in detention don’t even have attorneys to help them navigate the system, Jacobs said.

“Then let’s say that mom managed to get a call out and somehow gets through to [Office of Refugee Resettlement] and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you know, the sponsors aren’t answering the phone. We don’t know where the kid is,’” Jacobs said. “That’s terrifying.”

Then there are the instances, like this one reported by the Houston Chronicle, where a parent wasn’t reunited with their child before deportation that drive home Jacobs’ point. Not all children taken from their parents are being returned to them.

Jacobs said the practice of separating children and parents at the border is unprecedented in her experience practicing immigration law.

“The only analogies we have in history for this are pretty awful ones,” she said.

Proponents of the policy said that any parent prosecuted for a crime can’t remain with their children while in government custody, but border officials don’t seem to be making exceptions for parents seeking asylum at ports of entry — which is not against the law.

Jacobs said the government could not only be permanently separating children from their parents, but also creating a new class of undocumented youth who grow up in the United States because they were never reunited with their deported parents.

While “unaccompanied minors” are in refugee resettlement custody, they are guaranteed legal representation in immigration court. Once they are out living with a sponsor, they’re not, and HHS has said it’s not its responsibility to make sure the children get to the hearings. That has resulted in minors — sometimes even toddlers — representing themselves in immigration proceedings and some simply not showing up to hearings at all.

It’s unclear whether the system will be any different for the children who came with guardians but aren’t reunified with them.

The practice of separating children from their parents at the border is currently being challenged in court by the ACLU.

More ‘Zero-Tolerance’ Chaos

The government’s “zero-tolerance” policy has also taken over federal court calendars across the southwest border.

I spent some time in San Diego’s federal courts a couple of weeks ago and found the  policy was overwhelming nearly everyone in the legal system. I also spoke with former U.S. attorneys from the Southern District of California to get their takes on the new policy. One of those U.S. attorneys was Alan Bersion, who along with two other former border officials wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about how the “zero-tolerance” policy will hurt security more than it will help.

The Transactional Records Clearing House, a Syracuse University organization that tracks criminal immigration prosecutions, released new data Monday showing criminal border-crossing prosecutions at the Southern District of California jumped 67 percent between January and April this year. In April, San Diego’s federal court saw an all-time high of 589such prosecutions, according to the data.

Construction on San Diego’s ‘Big, Beautiful’ Wall Begins

On Friday, construction began just east of Border Field State Park to replace a stretch of barriers — the replacement structure is being billed as part of Trump’s border wall. It won’t look like any of the border wall prototypes in Otay Mesa, though, reports the Union-Tribune.

The Washington Post points out that while San Diego’s wall has become a model in Trump’s rhetoric, San Diego’s border still seems to be, by far, the largest gateway for illicit drugs to enter the country.

Other Border News

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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