500 Missing Migrant Children Narrative Reaches Presidential Debate Stage Despite the Facts

Unaccompanied Migrant Children
Victoria Razo/AFP/Getty Images

The surprise topic in the presidential debate on Thursday was the out-of-nowhere claim that President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have disappeared 500 migrant children.

Moderator Kristen Welker asked Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden about the narrative that surfaced just days ahead of the presidential election. The White House correspondent for NBC said:

Mr. President, your administration separated children from their parents at the border, at least 4000 kids. You’ve since reversed your zero tolerance policy, but the United States can’t locate the parents of more than 500 children. So how will these families ever be reunited?

Trump replied:

Children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels, and they’re brought here and it’s easy to use them to get into our country. We now have a stronger border as we’ve ever had. We’re over 400 miles of brand new wall, you see the numbers, and we let people in, but they have to come in legally.

Do you have a plan to reunite the kids?” Welker asked.

We’re trying very hard,” Trump said. “But a lot of these kids come up without the parents, they come over through cartels and the coyotes and through gangs.”

“Vice President Biden, let me bring you into this conversation.” Welker said. Biden said:

These 500 plus kids came with parents.They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with. Big real tough, really strong. And guess what? They cannot — it’s not coyotes that bring them over, their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every judge of who we are as a nation.

That immigration was inserted into the debate at the last minute is probably because of a misleading narrative that started when a federal judge in California ordered open borders legal groups to track down families who had been separated from the children because of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy. 

In fact, this policy is the same policy for handling families — or family units — entering the country illegally followed by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administration, except that Trump said that all persons entering illegally were considered to have broken U.S. law, while other administrations drew distinctions about illegal entry, i.e. drug trafficking.

Nonetheless, NBC led the media’s reporting on Trump breaking up families:

Lawyers appointed by a federal judge to identify migrant families who were separated by the Trump administration say that they have yet to track down the parents of 545 children and that about two-thirds of those parents were deported to Central America without their children, according to a filing Tuesday from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It is critical to find out as much as possible about who was responsible for this horrific practice while not losing sight of the fact that hundreds of families have still not been found and remain separated,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “There is so much more work to be done to find these families.

“People ask when we will find all of these families, and sadly, I can’t give an answer. I just don’t know,” Gelernt said. “But we will not stop looking until we have found every one of the families, no matter how long it takes. The tragic reality is that hundreds of parents were deported to Central America without their children, who remain here with foster families or distant relatives.”

Other media outlets immediately picked up the narrative, including the New York Times:

The new findings highlight the lasting impact of a policy that first came to light with wrenching images of crying children being carried away from their parents at the border and detained hundreds or thousands of miles away. Hundreds of these families, the new filing makes clear, have now endured years of separation.

But the Times and National Public Radio (NPR), which also blames Trump for the missing parents and children, both reported that not all of these relatives are seeking the same outcome.

“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,” the Times reported.

Joel Rose, a reporter with NPR said:

Once these families were separated, the children went into a shelter system before ultimately being placed with sponsors in the U.S. Usually that’s a family member. They could be anywhere in the country. Lawyers have been trying to track them down in order to reconnect them with their parents so they can decide if they – if the kids want to be brought back, if they want to waive that right and stay here with relatives. But the lawyers have also had trouble finding the kids, Lee Gelernt of the ACLU told me they still haven’t found about 360 of them, either.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responded to the NPR report, calling it “wholly inaccurate.”

“This story is wholly inaccurate,” Chase Jennings, spokesperson for DHS, tweeted. “In the current litigation, for example, out of the parents of 485 children whom Plaintiffs’ counsel has been able to contact, they’ve yet to identify a single family that wants their child reunited with them in their country of origin.”

And most of the reporting does not include the fact that all of the separations are not just a matter of political policies but come from a court settlement, the Flores Agreement, that put in place protocol prohibiting minors from being held in detention for more than 20 days.

Ironically, it was Trump who signed an executive order to keep families together who are inside U.S. borders while the immigration litigation process unfolds.

But none of the facts have stopped politicians for joining the chorus, some reaching shocking conclusions.

“The Trump administration orchestrated the kidnapping and psychological torture of innocent children,” former Obama HUD secretary Julian Castro tweeted while retweeting the Washington Post Editorial Board’s accusation that Trump had kidnapped children.

“545 children,” vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted. “This is outrageous and a stain on our national character. Families belong together.”

Federal statistics also put the number of children who have not been tracked down after being released into the U.S. According to Immigration Customs and Border Protection, in Fiscal Year 2020, 52,230 “family units” were encountered trying to enter the U.S.

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