What About The 545 Children?

Whether to separate children from parents as they cross over the border, whether claiming asylum or not, is a complicated question, although the arguments in favor of separation as anything other than a deliberately cruel method of creating a disincentive to enter the United States are overwhelming. These are children, for crying out loud. You can hate undocumented immigrants, if hating is your thing, but how does that extend to the children?

Yet, the complications of policy are nothing compared with the complications of logistics.

The efforts are part of a wide-ranging campaign to track down parents separated from their children at the U.S. border beginning in 2017 under the Trump administration’s most controversial immigration policy. It is now clear that the parents of 545 of the migrant children still have not been found, according to court documents filed this week in a case challenging the practice.

About 60 of the children were under the age of 5 when they were separated, the documents show.

The efforts to locate the parents of these lost kids have been valiant, from door to door searches to radio advertisements, and yet parents deported while their children were left behind have left 545 children alone.

Though attempts to find the separated parents have been going on for years, the number of parents who have been deemed “unreachable” is much larger than was previously known.

Regardless of how one feels about immigration policy, the duty to manage the functioning of its consequences doesn’t change. If separating children, even infants, from parents is what’s being done, then coordinating the return of children to their parents must also be done.

As Mario Machado noted, ICE has failed to demonstrate the modest capacity to coordinate its efforts with the prosecution of immigrants charged with heinous crimes. But as bad as this competence may have been, at least it doesn’t end up with 545 children left parentless. And it’s not as if the federal government was taken by surprise that it had a duty to act with the most minimal of logistical competence.

More than two years after a federal court ruled that the Trump administration’s migrant family separation policy was illegal and ordered reunification of the children with their families, over 500 of the victims still have not been reunited with their parents. The reason is that the parents in question were deported, and the government officials operating the program didn’t bother to make any provision for keeping track of them for purposes of eventual reunification, even though they knew that many young children were unlikely to ever be able to find their parents again on their own.

For many on the “law and order” side of the scales, the mantra of “do it for the children” is used as a manipulative weapon to tug at the heartstrings of the emotional, to overcome reason by an appeal to emotion. No matter what your feelings toward immigrants, what did these children do to deserve a fate of being “orphaned” by incompetence?

It may be that not all these children are entirely government victims, and that in some instances, parents have chosen to have their children remain in the United States to enjoy the future offered.

Some of the families who have been identified have decided their children would be safer in the United States than in their home countries, and elected for the children to stay with friends or family members who agreed to sponsor them.

As the children were released into the custody of family members or friends, it’s not as it they’re living under bridges or starving on the streets. But the administration has seized upon this as a means of blunting criticism of its flagrant incompetence.

The Trump administration has often pointed to this to argue that not all parents need to be identified and tracked down. Chase Jennings, an assistant press secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, said the “narrative” of families searching for their children but not finding them had “been dispelled” by previous reunification efforts.

“The simple fact is this,” Mr. Jennings said in a statement. “After contact has been made with the parents to reunite them with their children, many parents have refused.”

The distinction is one of a problem caused by parents who made the deliberate choice to leave without their children and a post-hoc rationalization for why the government’s failure to manage the logistics of first taking children from parents, then deporting parents, then trying to figure out what to do with the children they left behind, then using the parents’ refusal to have their children return to countries where they had little possibility of a livable future to excuse the inability to manage the system competently.

When H.H.S. case workers began their efforts to track down the families of children they encountered, as is customary for any child in federal custody, they discovered that the immigration authorities had not, in many cases, kept records of who each child’s parents were or how to reach them.

And because the computer system used by border authorities for processing incoming migrants had not been updated to accommodate family separations, the agents often inadvertently deleted identification numbers that could have been used to keep track when parents and children were sent to different places.

In the digital age, the ability to manage information should have been a breeze. Granted, there would be mistakes made, because that’s the hallmark of any task performed by government, and there would be a horror story of some child who fell through the cracks. And yes, there would be instances of parents contributing, if not causing, their own problems through deceit, ignorance or error. There are always outlier cases at which to point to blunt the failure of government to perform its function competently.

But this time, it’s children.

To my mind, the family separation policy could well be the greatest evil perpetrated by the Trump administration, which is saying no little, given some of the other things they have done.

This is a value judgment by Ilya Somin, and maybe there are greater evils perpetrated by the Trump administration as far as you’re concerned. Or maybe not. But that it’s inexplicable and inexcusable as a matter of basic logistics seems undeniable. If you’re going to separate the children, then you need to have a functional mechanism to return them. You can’t just leave 545 kids without parents and say “oops.”

11 thoughts on “What About The 545 Children?

  1. Alex Sarmiento

    The premise can’t just be that the children must be returned to their alleged parents at any cost. We are talking about people irresponsible enough to travel with children illegally. Parenting is more a responsibility and a privilege than a right. I am not going to defend the ilogistics and antipathy of Trump, but If the government is providing a safe shelter to the kids then that’s far more important, that’s their real right. In fact, those kids are the responsibility of their respective countries, and spare me from the progressive version of “but those are s***hole countries!” rhetoric, where all of the sudden America is “great”.

    1. Miles

      I assume you aren’t a lawyer, Alex, and consequently fail to grasp that when you start your point by adding in “at all costs,” you inform us that you belong at reddit rather than here. Or if you are a lawyer, then you’re a moron. If you can’t address the point, then you have no business here.

  2. Richard Kopf


    I allow States to put people to death. I don’t blink.

    This post, however, nearly brings me to tears.

    I guess I can console myself with the idea that these poor children are all brown. But that doesn’t help me so much either. They are still lovely kids as a mulatto niece of mine proves.

    The world can be a very shitty place. We prove it each and every day.

    As for saying “oops,” that disclaimer is always followed by, “I’m sorry.” That solemn declaration of culpability makes things so much better.

    All the best.


  3. Howl

    One child falling through the cracks is a tragedy. 545 children victimized by incompetence is statistics.

  4. Jake

    Silver lining? Trump’s petty incompetence focused his attention on ruining the lives of immigrants instead of accidentally triggering a global thermonuclear war.

  5. Erik H

    The modifier to “they can’t be found” is, usually, “…given the current levels of effort and budget.”

    We caused the separation. We lost the records. If our error requires us to drop everything and spend the dough on a “first world technological government” level of tracking each parent down, that’s on us.

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