Misleading “missing children” narrative gains traction amidst an already terrible month for immigrant community

Even by the standards of what has become a disturbing status quo as of late, the past month has been plagued by dehumanizing rhetoric and violent actions directed at immigrants and children of immigrants. It is part of a growing and horrifying narrative encouraging violence and reprisals toward the immigrant community in our nation – stemming from the highest office in the land.

© Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons

This is all taking place as stories exploded this past week regarding the “missing children” and the tremendous fear and misinformation circulating this issue. News outlets, politicians, and individuals jumped to the conclusion that the “missing children” – those “lost” by the federal government – are the same as those children who this administration has chosen to separate from their parents at the U.S. border.

With all these disturbing measures playing out at once, it’s crucial that we have all the facts in each story. And as has been broken down by attorneys, there are two different issues with immigrant children being reported on currently: the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t know the location of 1,500 unaccompanied minors, and the government is also separating parents and children at the border.

With regards to the first piece: these unaccompanied minors arrived at the border without a parent and their cases are managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).  When possible, unaccompanied minors are released into the care of either immediate or extended family, or others with whom they have a preexisting relationship, while they go through their immigration proceedings. Some of these children have been labeled “lost” because the Department of Health and Human Services – which oversees ORR – couldn’t locate them with cursory telephone checks. Given the fact that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has targeted those caring for unaccompanied minors for deportation, the fact that some caretakers are unresponsive is unsurprising.  Confusion about “lost” children could provide fodder for disingenuous attempts to undo hard-won protections for these children. For instance, this narrative could be used to attack the current crucially important policy favoring the release of unaccompanied children to qualified caretakers as opposed to keeping them in detention facilities, or the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which provides special assistance and pathways to immigration relief for unaccompanied children.

The Department of Justice’s move to separate children and their parents at the border is another matter altogether. This unconscionable policy puts into question our collective humanity as a nation. It was designed as a punitive measure, with the reasoning that parents seeking a better life for their children would no longer be able to look to the U.S. as a safe country. Unnecessary separation of families is harmful not only to families, but also to our country’s values. Our leaders should instead prioritize keeping family members as an intact unit – together – during the pendency of any immigration proceedings.

Again, conflating these two issues is dangerous – not only from an ethical standpoint but for the children and families in question. It isn’t all that extreme to wonder if lawmakers seeking to increase deportations might use the story that the government somehow “lost” 1,500 children as justification to advance their own agenda. Such confusion will make it easier for them to attempt to gut laws that protect these children.

The lengthy string of disturbing incidents and proclamations of the past week – combined with an intricate web of information easily confused by people on both sides of the immigration debate – highlights the multifaceted dangers of the hateful invective espoused by the most powerful office in our country. We must guard against the onslaught of anti-immigrant speech and policy becoming so overwhelming that we abandon our civic duty to stay informed and defend our values as a country that rejects hate and instead, pursues liberty and justice for all.

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