The allegation that U.S. authorities "lost" some 1,500 child migrants who came to the United States in search of asylum has created confusion over the handling by the Trump administration of these cases dating back to a border crisis in 2014 involving a flood of unaccompanied minors.
To try and clear up some of that confusion, Univision Noticias went in search of answers.
Is it true these children, who were handed over to the custody of relatives or other care givers, were genuinely lost by the government?
Not really. Rather than being truly lost, the government has simply lost track of them.
How did the Trump government lose track of them?
Eric Hargan, undersecretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources (HHS), the agency in charge of caring for the minors while they are being processed by the immigration courts, has stated that the minors have not "disappeared."
According to Hargan, after being apprehended at the border, the minors were handed over to HHS and later to their parents, relatives or persons responsible for their care, who agreed to abide by the outcome of their deportation and / or asylum cases.
In all cases, the people who received these children had to go through a criminal background check. But when the government tried to contact those responsible for the children through the Office of Refugees and Resettlement (ORR), he said "they simply did not respond (the phone) or could not be contacted."
Why did they call them?
The government says that the ORR, which is part of the Department of Health, began in 2016 to make voluntary calls 30 days after releasing the minors to ensure that they and their sponsors did not require additional services.
This step is not mandatory nor was it done previously, according to a statement by Hargan, who said it as being used "to confuse and spread misinformation" regarding the whereabouts of the children.
How many children have been delivered into custody to parents or relatives in recent months?
In the first semester of fiscal year 2018 (Oct 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018) ORR delivered 16,220 minors. During fiscal year 2017 the number rose to 42,497 and in 2016 to 52,147.
Where are the children?
It is not known where they all are. The government says the main explanation for their "disappearance" is that some of the adults who took responsibility for them are undocumented and do not want federal authorities to find them.
Is there any difference between how President Obama and President Trump have handled these cases?
Yes. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guaranteed the parents of the children (known in immigration parlance as UAC or 'unaccompanied minors') that they could claim them without risk of being detained because of their legal status.
Under Trump, that has changed. After taking office, Trump decreed that the undocumented presence is a threat to public and national security. Hargan notes that "this is the core of the problem." "In many cases, the Department of Health has delivered the children who came to the country to undocumented parents or relatives who helped organize their illegal entry into the United States." This, he says, worsens the immediate crisis and creates a perverse incentive for further violation of the federal immigration law.
The Trump administration says that "if parents do not want to be separated from their children, they should not violate U.S. laws, nor endanger minors through illicit drug trafficking."
The Obama administration never sought to link the migration crisis on the border with drug trafficking from Mexico. Instead, it handled the issues separately to protect the right to asylum, especially of minors.
Why then do they continue to deliver the children?
The Trump administration does not have the capacity to keep them in custody, especially since Congress has not approved the funds to enforce his border policy. Also, under a 1997 court ruling, Flores vs Meese, the government cannot lock up minors.
However, a 2008 law on the protection of victims of human trafficking, known as TVPRA, stipulates that unaccompanied minors who come from countries not bordering the United States must be prosecuted and an immigration judge must resolve their future in the country.
Due to a logjam in the immigration courts, where there is an average of 484 days wait time for a first court date, the government is obliged to seek alternatives to handle the high number of minors arriving in the country. One of those is to deliver the children to relatives pending resolution of their immigration cases.
How does the government intend to ensure that no child disappears within the system?
The Department of Health has requested more spaces to detain and prosecute minors detained at the border. There are currently 100 shelters in 14 states.
It is also seeking to increase "routine evaluations" to ensure that minors stay within the legal process. The release of a minor to a responsible person or temporary housing, "will only be sought as a last resort when the current centers are at their maximum capacity," the Department of Homeland Security says.
What does the Trump government propose to definitively "fix" the problem?
Trump has asked Congress to annul laws and judicial agreements that facilitate or encourage the arrival of children at the border.
On January 25, 2017, the Trump administration announced that it would eliminate the practice of "catch and release". On April 13 of this year, it published a memorandum in the Federal Register suspending the releases, but the government now wants Congress to legislate so that it applies to all undocumented detainees, including minors currently protected by the 2008 law. That way the government would be able to immediately deport all minors who arrive at the border, regardless of their origin.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is requesting the annulment of the Flores vs. Meese ruling in order to keep juveniles in detention while they are being processed for deportation.
Does this have anything to do with the issue of separation of families detained at the border?
Yes. They are part of the same policy. According to the government, due to the inaction of Congress regarding border security, "dangerous" incentives have been created for illegal border crossings and the smuggling of children.
Trump's policy is that "any foreigner who crosses the border illegally (i.e. not an official border crossing) is subject to federal criminal prosecution."
This means that every person prosecuted "will be transferred to federal criminal custody for violating United States law," according to Hargan. In which case, families with children who enter the United States illegally will be separated and the parent transferred to federal custody for violating U.S. law, he added.
According to attorney Matt Adams, director of the legal department of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, Washington, the separation of children signifies a new practice by the Trump government. "Now they impose criminal charges on parents who enter the country at somewhere other than an official port of entry. Children cannot be incarcerated with parents while they face this criminal process and that is why they are separated. "