U.S. Has ‘Lost’ 1,500 Immigrant Children And Now It’s Taking Children Away From Parents

The Trump Administration has lost track of nearly 1,500 children at the same time that it is implementing a new policy that will result in children who arrive at the border with their parents or other family members.

In a story that isn’t getting nearly the attention that it deserves, the Trump Administration is admitting that it has lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children who were taken into Federal custody after arriving unaccompanied at the border with Mexico:

The federal government has placed thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children in the homes of sponsors, but last year it couldn’t account for nearly 1,500 of them.

Steven Wagner, a top official with the Department of Health and Human Services, disclosed the number to a Senate subcommittee last month while discussing the state of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) that oversees the care of unaccompanied immigrant children.

Wagner is the acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. ORR is a program of the Administration for Children and Families

CNN reported earlier this month that, in his testimony, Wagner said during the last three months of 2017, the ORR lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children it had placed in the homes of sponsors.

Wagner’s statement has attracted more attention amid reports that immigrant children are being separated from their parents at the US border.

Wagner said the Department of Homeland Security referred more than 40,000 immigrant children to the ORR during the 2017 fiscal year.

After a stay in an ORR shelter, the majority of children are sent to live with sponsors who have close ties to the children — typically a parent or close relative, Wagner said, though some end up living with “other-than-close relatives or non-relatives.”

Between October and December 2017, Wagner told the subcommittee, the ORR reached out to 7,635 unaccompanied children to check on them. But the ORR “was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 children,” Wagner testified. An additional 28 had run away.

That’s more than 19% of the children that were placed by the ORR. But Wagner said HHS is not responsible for the children.

“I understand that it has been HHS’s long-standing interpretation of the law that ORR is not legally responsible for children after they are released from ORR care,” Wagner said.

The office is “taking a fresh look at that question,” he added. But if the ORR were to be legally responsible for the well-being of unaccompanied immigrant children, it would need a significant increase in resources.

Buzzfeed’s Salvador Hernandez has more:

The US government lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children, but officials say they are not “legally responsible” for them after they are placed in temporary homes to await the outcome of their asylum cases.

The revelation, made during a congressional hearing last month, comes as officials continue to struggle with the number of minors who make the dangerous trek into the United States, many of them seeking asylum from violence in their home countries.

It also comes amid concerns the Department of Homeland Security is looking to separate children from their parents if they are caught together while trying to cross the border as a form of deterrent.

US agencies have struggled with legal, logistical, and political questions regarding underage immigrants, as thousands of them continue to be detained at the US-Mexico border.

Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary for the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, told a subcommittee in April that officials were unable to determine what happened to 1,475 children who were placed in sponsors’ homes between October to December 2017.

Another 28 kids, Wagner told lawmakers, also ran away from the home.

The agency had been attempting to contact 7,635 minors and their sponsors, he said, as part of a routine checkup to look into their safety. More than 19% of them, however, were unaccounted for.

Mostly from Central American countries, unaccompanied child immigrants that are detained trying to cross the border are transferred from one agency to another, from US Customs and Border Protection to Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The child is then placed at the home of a sponsor, a parent, relative, or close family friend who can show ties to the child. But US officials say they are not legally responsible for children after they are placed in homes.

“I understand that it has been (Heath and Human Services’) long-standing interpretation of the law that (the Office of Refugee Resettlement) is not legally responsible for children after they are released from ORR care,” Wagner told the committee.


More than 40,000 children were referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement during the 2017 fiscal year, Wagner said.

HHS has recently adopted multiple changes, including interviewing sponsors, conducting background checks, and refining the type of documents sponsors can use to reduce the possibility of fraud, to address problems, such as placing several Guatemalan minors in the hands of human traffickers.

According to a Senate investigation, HHS turned the minors over to human traffickers, who then forced many of them to work in an egg farm in Ohio for six or seven days a week. Their paychecks were withheld by the traffickers to pay off smuggling debts, according to the report.

The smugglers also threatened the children and their families so they would continue to work, investigators said. For example, one child was told his father would be shot in the head if he did not continue working, and another was placed in a trailer with no heat, bed, hot water, or toilet for complaining.

It’s important to note that the children in question here were not accompanied when they arrived at the border or were accompanied by people to whom they were not related and thus who could not be granted custody of them while in the United States. Additionally, it’s worth noting that many of these children arrived in the United States prior to the time that Donald Trump became President. Notwithstanding those facts, though, it needs to be stressed that it has been within the past year that the Federal Government has lost track of these children, that this has occurred under the watch of the President and the people who he has appointed to head the relevant agencies with jurisdiction over these children, and that the argument that the Federal Government lack any legal requirement to keep track of these children does not appear to be supported by existing law. Indeed, the entire purpose of placing these children in what are supposed to be temporary homes is to ensure that they are being taken care of adequately while awaiting hearings on their asylum claims, which will determine whether or not they can remain in the United States or whether they must be returned to their countries of origin.

This announcement is also highly relevant due to the fact that President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have embarked on a new policy that would take children into custody even when they arrive at the border with Mexico with their parents or other family members. Back in March of last year, for example, it was reported that the Department of Homeland Security was considering a new policy under which children would be taken away from their parents or other family members if they arrived at the border. It was clear at the time that the main purpose of the announcement was to send a message to potential immigrants seeking to cross legally into the United States under a claim of asylum or some other reason from even thinking about doing so for fear of losing their children. Additionally, in May of this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that this indeed would be the policy going forward, and there’s every reason to believe that this is exactly what has been happening on the southern border over the past several months.

Given this new policy, the fact that the Administration has lost track of 1,500 children taken into custody in previous years becomes all the more alarming. If the Federal Government can’t keep track of those children and apparently believes it has no legal responsibility to do so, then how can it be trusted with the custody of children who are being taken from their parents? The answer, of course, is that it cannot be trusted and that, in addition to being utterly inhumane, the policy of separating parents from children will put children at risk of being put in the hands of human traffickers who will end up selling them off as slave labor or, worse, to the international market for child sex slaves. To say that this is unconscionable is an understatement and yet it is quite apparent that the Administration simply doesn’t care about the danger it is putting children in.

As Colin Kalmbacher notes, though, the Trump White House has been seeking to falsely blame Democrats for this situation:

On Saturday morning, President Donald Trump falsely suggested that Democrats are to blame for his administration’s recently-enacted policy of intentionally separating immigrant children from their families when they try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a tweet sent at 6:59 a.m. the 45th president wrote:

Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border [sic] into the U.S. Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain must also go with it and we MUST continue building the WALL! DEMOCRATS ARE PROTECTING MS-13 THUGS.

While remaining more or less agnostic as to whether putting pressure on Democrats to do anything would actually result in more than a form letter or non-stop series of fundraising emails, President Trump’s suggestion here is doubly inaccurate.

To wit: (1) the “horrible law” Trump is referencing in the above tweet is not actually a law of any sort, it’s an enforcement priority; and (2) it’s an enforcement priority enacted only recently by Trump’s own administration.

The first point:

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been opposed to Trump’s child-separation policy since it was first whispered about and has filed a lawsuit to enjoin the administration from continuing the controversial practice.

Here’s the kicker: while arguing against the ACLU’s position, the Department of Justice admitted that their child-separation policy was not required by any law or statute. Simply put, there’s no “horrible law” for Democrats or anyone to rescind that bears directly on the administration’s child-separation policy.

The second point:

At a May 7 speech in front of law enforcement professionals, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III outlined the new policy. He said, “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

The Trump administration floated trial balloons about the child-separation policy as early as December 2017. But the actual policy appears to have gone into effect some months before that. how As of October 2017, the New York Times reported in excess of 700 children had been taken away from their families-including over 100 children under the age of 4.

In other words, the Trump Administration is admitting that it has lost track of nearly 1,500 children at the same time that it is implementing a policy that will result in more children being placed in the same system that lost track of those children. The insanity and inhumanity of this situation should be apparent. In Donald Trump’s America, though, it’s just another day at the office.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. SenyorDave says:

    Trump isn’t just an ignorant, incompetent buffoon, he’s also evil. He surrounds himself with evil and/or incompetent people. Kelly, Pruitt, Sessions – evil. Perry, Carson, Devos – incompetent.

  2. drj says:

    it is quite apparent that the Administration simply doesn’t care about the danger it is putting children in.

    But it does care. After all, this is deliberate policy.


    If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.

    Sessions c.s. are simply following well-established precedent:

    Hostage-taking is an instrument of terror. Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror. Memoirs of Stalinist terror are full of stories of strong men and women disintegrating when their loved ones are threatened […]

    Ella Paneyakh, a Russian sociologist who studies law-enforcement practices, observed in a Facebook post that [Russian] police had clearly been directed to target children. A possible explanation, she suggested, is that social services, which will process the minors, is even less accountable than the regular courts are. While Russian activists have learned to make the work of the courts difficult, filing appeals and regularly going all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, there is no role for defense attorneys and no apparent appeals process in the social-services system.

  3. mattbernius says:

    While this problem is one for the Trump Administration to solve (the buck needs to stop somewhere), I have yet to get a sense from any of the reporting of when the kids were specifically “lost.”

    My understanding is that the kids we are talking about were unaccompanied minors from various Central American countries who reached the southern U.S. border between 2013 and 2016. So it would be helpful to know when the last comprehensive audit was done. Buzzfeed says they are “routine checks” but that doesn’t tell us enough.

    Without knowing that we can’t be sure how many of these kids “disappeared” under the Obama administration.

    On the other hand, if it turns out that they were accounted for prior to Trump, this becomes a data point about how his rhetoric on deportation and handling of things like the Dream Act could be causing an increasing number of immigrant children to go (or be taken) to ground.

  4. Modulo Myself says:

    Human beings who have asked for asylum are being punished for doing this, which is downright evil.

    Obama should have abolished ICE and Trump and Sessions are happy to be worse than Obama. We are becoming a nation of dumb cops and snitching neighbors, all of whom dislike humanity in every form except the most pathetic.

  5. Eric Florack says:
  6. Gustopher says:

    Another instance where the answer to “stupid or evil?” is “both”.

    And, let’s not let the rest of the Republican Party off easy on this — this is why we need functioning oversight committees in congress, not just a bunch of toadies defending their president. Republicans control the committees, and they need to do their damned jobs.

    Oh, god, what if the crazies are right? What if the children are being sold into a sex slave ring run out of a pizza parlor, and that this has been going on for years? What if PizzaGate was real?

  7. Eric Florack says:

    It’s interesting. The Washington Post back in 2016 reported that the Obama administration had placed literally thousands of children with human traffickers.

    I don’t recall a post about that in here.

    I do have the link in case you’re curious but the spam defense seems to dislike anti-obama posts from news sources.

  8. Kathy says:

    Trump is intent in making America a pariah nation.

  9. teve tory says:

    I’d say the ZTE corruption shows he’s mostly focused on them Dollar Bills.

  10. @Eric Florack: The article you cited noted 30 cases, not “literally thousands”:

    It detailed nearly 30 cases where unaccompanied children had been trafficked after federal officials released them to sponsors or where there were “serious trafficking indicators.”

    I think you only read the first paragraph.

    And, 30 cases is too many and we should all want this fixed. And yes: let’s acknowledge failings by previous administrations. None of that, however, is an answer to what the current admin is doing. This post details blatant lies from the president as well as noting a heartless policy. But please, ignore that and complain about the lack of a post concerning the Obama administration.

  11. And really: is your only response to this horrible situation some version of “but, Obama”?

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: You were expecting something else from someone who has continually shown that he doesn’t give a rat’s a$$ about anything except discrediting the previous President (who happens, by some strange coincidence to be black)?

  13. Hal_10000 says:

    @Eric Florack:

    We’re talking about a few dozen out of hundreds of thousands that were pressed into forced labor (keeping in mind that our govt has a very broad definition of what constitutes trafficking and specifically defines “sex trafficking” so broadly that consenting sex workers have been charged with trafficking themselves). It is appalling that it happened; but it was not done on purpose.

    Trump is making things much worse. A system that lost track of 1500 kids and let about 30 get into forced labor is now being tasked with taking care of potentially hundreds of thousands of children who have come here with their parents.

    I criticized Obama’s immigration policies and ICE for years because not only was it bad but I feared what would happen if it got into the hands of someone evil and incompetent. Now we’re seeing that.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    And really: is your only response to this horrible situation some version of “but, Obama”?

    Surely you jest…apart from calling everyone else liars, that is their response to EVERYTHING…

  15. Modulo Myself says:

    What’s terrifying is the lack of resistance within these institutions. I just read about a man who after 20 years in prison (for selling crack, of course), getting out, and having started a real life is now being forced to go back for 15 more years in because of some procedural nonsense. The man has friends and belongs to a church. The judge is sorry, but rules are rules. Nobody resists. The judge is 73; she went to Cornell. The man of course is African-American and grew up in poverty with an abusive father. She should be risking be impeachment in every way she can to keep this man out of prison. Instead, she’s like what can we do?

    People who committed crimes in actual authoritarian regimes had their own safety to fear. You had to go along with your Nazi boss or your Soviet commissar because they would go after you and your family; they would torture you until you signed a confession and then kill you. If you tell the truth about your ICE fascists colleagues or refuse to prosecute or gum up the works, or my god–risk a friendship over racism–nothing real happens to you.

    Americans have no excuse. Absolutely none.

  16. Hal_10000 says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    You’re talking about the Matthew Charles case. Don’t blame the judge; blame the prosecutors. Her hands are tied by the law. It was the prosecutors who decided he needed to go back. The only thing that could save him is a presidential pardon or commutation.

  17. @Steven L. Taylor: I challenge the down-voters to tell me how I am wrong.

  18. @Just nutha ignint cracker: @An Interested Party: I am not surprised in the least. It was just such a blatantly ridiculous attempt.

  19. rachel says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Absent any response, I’m just going to assume those are a couple cases of fat fingers.

  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Considering that the two downvotes probably came from Florak and Florak logging in again on a sock puppet account…

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @One American: I don’t recall that, but I could be wrong. Enlighten me.

  22. @One American: The first mention of Bush is this entire conversation is from you, I would note.

  23. TM01 says:

    From the NYT of all places:

    officials learned that 6,075 children remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight had run away, five had been removed from the United States and 52 had relocated to live with a nonsponsor. The rest were unaccounted for, giving rise to the 1,475 number. It is possible that some of the adult sponsors simply chose not to respond to the agency.


    Could this site be The New BuzzFeed?