Parents of undocumented children who were taken by ICE and separated from their families aren’t getting clear-cut answers on where their kids are. In some cases, they’re being inadvertently handed off to human traffickers.
Esteban Pastor, a 28-year-old Guatemalan who crossed the U.S. border illegally last summer to find work that would pay off the debt he incurred to take care of his sick child, was separated from his son when ICE detained him. Pastor told the Houston Chronicle that the only answer he got from ICE was that his 18-month-old son was somewhere in a federal shelter, though they weren’t sure where.
“I cried. I begged,” Pastor told the Chronicle. “No one could tell me anything.”
Pastor is just one of thousands of parents who are unable to track down their children in the wake of the Trump administration’s implementation of harsh immigration policy in which parents are deported and children are sent to federal shelters.
As Grit Post reported recently, some of these children will reportedly be sent to live in warehouses on American military bases until a relative in their home country can be contacted, or until a “sponsor” can take responsibility for them. However, some of these children are reportedly being released to child predators.
Earlier this week, the Arizona Republic reported that out of more than 7,000 undocumented children separated from their parents, immigration officials lost track of approximately 1,475 of them. This means that parents of roughly 20 percent of all children separated from their families under the Trump administration’s new immigration policy have no way of finding their kids.
While children detained at the border are put under the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a documentary by PBS’ Frontline found that, in some cases, HHS released some undocumented children to human traffickers who positioned themselves as “sponsors” to children separated from parents.
“If a child is being, for instance, kept at home and abused by a sponsor, and a local school doesn’t even know the child is supposed to be going there, then some of the usual triggers that we have for protecting children can’t be triggered,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) told PBS.
During a CNN interview in March of 2017, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly (now President Trump’s Chief of Staff) first suggested his agency may separate children at the border. And even though the Trump administration has already been separating undocumented children from their families since last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally announced the new policy in a speech to law enforcement officials in San Diego, California earlier this month.
“Don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said in response to concerns about the harshness of separating families from children.
However, for parents like Esteban Pastor, that strict policy can mean his vulnerable 18-month-old boy could be lost in the system, making him easy prey for anyone with bad intentions.
“Who is caring for this baby? How will he get back to his father?” Public defender Meghan McLoughlin told the Houston Chronicle in reference to Pastor’s case. “It just seemed so crazy logistically. The kid can’t even talk.”
Children in HHS’ care are under the jurisdiction of the Administration of Children and Families. Acting Assistant Secretary Steven Wagner has faced questioning from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on why HHS isn’t putting better systems in place to track undocumented children kept away from their parents.
“We’ve got these kids,” said subcommittee chairman Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who votes in line with President Trump 94 percent of the time. “They’re here. They’re living on our soil. And for us to just, you know, assume someone else is going to take care of them and throw them to the wolves, which is what HHS was doing, is flat-out wrong. I don’t care what you think about immigration policy, it’s wrong.”
On the same day that Customs and Border Protection agents were found to be sexually abusing undocumented children, President Trump appeared to justify their actions by saying that the children being abused were future criminals.
“They look so innocent. They’re not innocent,” Trump said.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.