Sloppy or nonexistent identification systems at the United States-Mexican border, no organized tracking of children snatched from their parents — some often too young to say who they are — and the withholding of important information by Trump officials, frequently defying a federal court order and a presidential decree six months ago, have come to light in a new report.
Dysfunction and inhumanity inform the report published on Jan. 17 by the inspector general of the government department responsible for the fate of thousands of missing children. Their families still wait in misery in US custody, in homes across Central America or in makeshift camps in Mexico.
“The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown,” the report of the inspector general of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) concluded.
The unequivocal statement from the inspector’s office appears to confirm accusations from refugee advocates that for the first time in American history, a federal government practice persists in condoning the virtual kidnapping of children for a punitive purpose: to deter future asylum seekers.
At least two of the children in US custody have died because of inadequate medical attention.
The report from the Office of Inspector General, “Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care,” said that its tally since the US court ordered the department in June 2018 to account for detained children and reunite them with their broken families had “thus far” identified 2,737 children in government care. Those are the documented cases.
“However, thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting by the court, and HHS has faced challenges in identifying separated children,” the report said.
Some of the cases of missing children have been resolved, the government officials say, but records are insufficient or nonexistent. The inspector’s report said that identifying separated children and where they may be has been hampered by “the lack of an existing, integrated data system to track separated families across HHS and DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and the complexity of determining which children should be considered separated.”
In a five-page commentary responding to the inspector’s findings, Lynn A. Johnson, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, agreed on some of the information but questioned other parts. The response, in an appendix to the report, defended steps that HHS said that it had taken during and since the court order in June 2018. It also explained the complexity of a tangled system involving various government agencies and limited powers the department resettlement office had.
In addition, the HHS response mentioned steps it has taken or is taking to improve accounting in missing-children cases, arguing that its resettlement-office processes “are effective and continue to improve.”
United Nations agencies strongly condemned Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant policies from the start. The US was reminded that the right to asylum was a fundamental rule in migration, a warning disregarded in Washington. The UN Refugee Agency, which emphasized the right to asylum under international refugee agreements and laws, moved into Mexico and Central America with basic assistance to the migrants, most of whom are fleeing violence. The agency is offering to help return those who decide to go back home, given the hostility at the US border.
“Children — no matter where they come from or what their migration status — are children first and foremost,” Unicef said in a statement in June, expressing concern that the American open door had closed so suddenly and sometimes violently on outsiders.
“For decades, the US Government and its people have supported our efforts to help child refugees, asylum seekers and migrants affected by crises across the globe.” Unicef said. “Whether it be war in Syria or South Sudan, famine in Somalia, or an earthquake in Haiti, the US has been there to help, and take in, uprooted children.”
Wilson Bell, an assistant professor in the department of philosophy, history and politics at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, is a leading authority on policies of family separation, including internment in detention centers and concentrations camps. In June 2018, when the separation of children from parents, grandparents or guardians along the US-Mexico border was receiving worldwide attention, he wrote a lengthy study titled, “The dreadful history of children in concentration camps.”
He noted that “Wikipedia has now added the notorious American border detention centers to its list of concentration camps, and that the #FamiliesBelongTogether hashtag has brought up frequent comparisons,” which he said were being widely debated.
In his paper, Bell ranged over 120 years of history, looking at examples from British camps built to divide families during the 1899-1902 South African War. “They hoped that Boer men who were fighting British forces would give up once they discovered that their wives and children were held in camps,” he wrote.
In the Soviet Union, a system of camps reached its peak under Stalin, Bell wrote.
“While mass arrests broke up the family, and children of ‘enemies of the people’ were separated from their parents, there were also many children in the Gulag itself.” In Germany, the Nazi regime “crushed the family unit among undesirable populations, focusing on Jews.”
In Australia and North America, families in indigenous populations had their children removed by authorities, ostensibly for better education and health care, though the long-term effect was often the obliteration of native cultures.
“Some commentators have looked not at European powers, but to a long North American history — including slavery and residential schools — of separating non-white children from their parents,” Bell wrote.
Drastic destruction of families on the scale of Soviet or Nazi systems are not, of course, comparable to what is happening in the US, Bell suggests. “This similarity, however, depends on the actions now of the Trump administration, which for several weeks before its reversal included denial, deflecting blame and even justification,” he wrote in June 2018.
“But with reports of children being torn away from their mothers’ arms while breastfeeding, the more notorious concentration camps of the 20th century must serve as a stark reminder that the act of dehumanization is a slippery slope towards violence and further atrocities.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.