Are Migrant Children Vanishing in ‘Shadow Operation’?

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Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Federal agents  have reportedly “expelled” thousands of migrant children since March. Many never had access to a lawyer or were allowed to see their families.

What’s worse, advocates say, is that many of the children — as young as eight months old — are “virtually impossible to find,” the Texas Tribune and ProPublica co-report. 

Earlier this year, the White House issued an emergency health order that cited the threat of COVID-19 as a way to grant “federal agents sweeping powers to almost immediately return anyone at the border.” 

While children are entitled to special protections under the law, specifically to have their asylum claims adjudicated by a judge, this new policy did away with the requirement of formal hearings. 

Because of this, some of the children who arrived at the U.S. border begging for safety were swept up and transferred to a nearby hotel under the care of a government contractor before being formally deported. 

Others were not granted the primary registration number that the Department of Homeland Security uses to “track all immigrants in its care.” Without the formal documentation of the children’s arrival, there’s subsequently no documentation of their Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation. 

It’s as if the children that don’t receive a number or aren’t held by ICE just disappear, the journalists write. 

Lisa Frydman, vice president of international programs at Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an advocacy group for migrant children with partners across Central America, spoke with the Texas Tribune and ProPublica reporters, saying, “We are only reaching a tiny fraction of these kids.” 

Frydman continued, “The rest are just gone.”

“Nobody can find them,” echoed Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy at KIND, the advocacy group.

But some of the children do make it back to their home countries, allowing advocates to map out the alarming situation.

Between April and June, at least 476 unaccompanied minors made it back to Honduras after arriving at the U.S. border. Another 380 minors made it back to Guatemala, 70 to El Salvador, and 1,050 to Mexico, according to the latest data available cited by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

But strict lockdowns have made it difficult for watchdogs, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to track the minors as they journey back alone. 

Because of this, advocates and journalists recognize that the numbers we have are only the tip of the iceberg. 

Moreover, “the number of kids who have been received doesn’t match up with the number of kids who have been expelled,” said Frydman of KIND, citing that the government said it had expelled “at least 2,175 ‘single minors’ under the health declaration.” 

Then, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed litigation against the government, the Trump administration stopped providing data. 

Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney fighting the expulsions in court spoke with Texas Tribune and ProPublica reporters, saying, “The government is getting away with a complete end run around all of the protections for children that Congress has painstakingly enacted.”

“Shadow Operation” 

Not every unaccompanied child who arrives at the U.S. border is immediately turned away. Many of them are rounded up and held by federal agents. 

Except, their holding situation is not through a federally regulated and state licensed shelter, where the children would have access to counsel and social workers. Instead, these children can be found at a hotel under a network of custody contractors “not licensed to care for children,” Texas Tribune and ProPublica reports.

“This is a shadow operation,” Neha Desai, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law told reporters.

It is in these hotels, like a Texas Hampton Inn & Suites swarmed by parked white federal vans, where over 200 children have been confined for days at a time through May and June, awaiting expulsion. 

This act is in direct defiance of the 1997 consent decree, known as the Flores Settlement which “requires migrant children in detention have certain rights, including that they be released quickly and held in licensed child care facilities,” Texas Tribune and ProPublica cites.

Alexa Vance, a Justice Department spokesperson, declined to comment to both the Texas Tribune and ProPublica. April Grant, a spokesperson for ICE, also declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuits.

Additional Reading: Up to 850,000 Immigration Cases in ‘Limbo’ After Pandemic Shutdown: Study

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.

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