The internet was outraged to learn that the federal government reportedly lost nearly 1,500 migrant children last year, but the real story's more complicated. One Twitter thread about the missing migrant children clears up some misconceptions about the report and highlights why it could be an overestimation of how many kids were actually lost. For starters, the missing children aren't directly related to recent reports that the Trump administration will start separating families crossing the U.S. border illegally.
If you missed the original story, here's the gist: The New York Times reported in April that Steven Wagner, a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official, testified before Congress that HHS lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children placed with United States sponsors. Wagner explained that HHS came to this number after calling the sponsors who took over responsibility for the children and was "unable to determine with certainty" where 1,475 children were, according to The Times.
As #WhereAreTheChildren tweets brought more attention to the issue, Josie Duffy Rice, a lawyer and research director at the Fair Punishment Project, wrote a thread Sunday night clearing up some of the misinformation that was quickly spreading. "The outrage I’ve seen is a result of a total misinterpretation and could SERIOUSLY threaten the children you want to save," she began.
The children HHS reported missing weren't separated from their parents at the border — Wagner told Congress they were taken into government custody after crossing the U.S border alone after traveling from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) handles these types of cases, and Rice explained that children are almost always released into the care of either immediate family, extended family, or someone the child knows.
Former issues with this system raised questions a few years ago, however. Homeland Security and HHS both agreed in 2016 that the guidelines for releasing children in ORR custody needed to be tightened following a government report that found HHS officials had placed eight children with human traffickers who forced them to work on an Ohio egg farm. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) told The Times in April that the updated procedures have not yet been completed.
Still, Rice argued that using the word "missing" to describe the 1,475 children HHS couldn't find isn't exactly accurate.
"Basically by all accounts HHS did a cursory reach out to check on these kids, and couldn’t find out where they were exactly," Rice wrote on Twitter. "When I say cursory I mean cursory. We’re talking about phone calls. Phone calls!! Like, no door knocks. No checking school records. They called. They didn’t find answers."
Simply not answering phone calls doesn't necessarily mean more than 1,000 kids are lost, Rice explained — and there are myriad reasons their sponsors may have dodged calls from HHS. Their sponsors could be undocumented, for example. They could also be documented but still prefer not to interact with a federal government that's been vocal about wanting to crack down on immigration.
Vox immigration reporter Dara Lind made a similar point on Friday. "We do not know how many of these children weren’t located because they and their relatives in the US (who might even be their parents!) made the decision to go off the grid to reduce deportation risk," she tweeted.
Rice believes the "missing" children are "almost certainly living with family members who almost certainly don’t want to interact with the government." Her thread further argued that ORR increasing tracking of migrant children released to U.S. sponsors wouldn't be beneficial.
"The potential for it backfiring is real," she wrote. "What we’re demanding is that ORR, which works hand in hand with ICE, 'keep better track' of kids they basically would like to deport if giving the chance. We don’t want that!!!"