As any mother who has turned her back for "one second" only to lose sight of her child for a harrowing few moments knows, there is no terror quite like not knowing where your child is. Now, a series of recent headlines are causing many people to consider when this experience escalates to the worst possible scenario.
After media reports of nearly 1,500 immigrant children being lost by the United States government, shock quickly lead to outrage and a burning question in the form of a viral hashtag—#WhereAreTheChildren?
"I have never seen so many mothers so heartbroken about anything, so many American mothers," says author and activist Glennon Doyle, who counts herself among the heartbroken. As the founder of the non-profit Together Rising, an organization that "transforms heartache into action" by raising funds for charitable causes and passing on 100% of the money raised, the Love Warrior author tells Motherly she had to help when she read the headlines.
After days of organizing and listening to people involved in the immigration community, Doyle is worried "two different things are getting conflated in the news:" The long-standing issue of unaccompanied minors crossing the border without a parent, and the recent announcement of attorney general Jeff Sessions' new zero-tolerance policy for border crossers that separates parents and children while prosecution is pending.
"We don't want to separate families, but we don't want families to come to the border illegally and attempt to enter into this country improperly," Sessions said when announcing the policy earlier this month. "The parents are subject to prosecution while children may not be. So, if we do our duty and prosecute those cases, then children inevitably for a period of time might be in different conditions."
The 1,500 children whose whereabouts prompted #WhereAreTheChildren to go viral were not separated from their parents at the border due to this policy, they are, rather, mostly kids who were placed in the custody of the Office of Refuge Resettlement custody after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents, as unaccompanied minors. As Cecilia Munoz, a former White House domestic policy director recently told NPR, these children often "either rode on the top of the train which crosses Mexico or they were brought by smugglers."
These unaccompanied children and teens are placed with the Department of Health and Human Services and "and then HHS is supposed to release them to the least restrictive setting," Munoz explains. "And in more than 80% of the cases, that was their parents who were already in the United States."
From October to December 2017, The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), voluntarily made follow-up calls after 7,635 kids are placed with their sponsors. According to the DHHS, about 86% of the sponsors participated in these well-being calls, and the ORR learned the majority of the kids (6,075) were where they were supposed to be, 28 had run away, five had been removed from country and 52 were living with a non-sponsor. The ORR didn't reach the sponsors of 1,475 kids, so those minors are unaccounted for.
On Monday, U.S. acting Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan, released a statement saying the children in question are not "lost," but rather likely in the care of sponsors after crossing the border as unaccompanied minors: "Their sponsors—who are usually parents or family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them—simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made. While there are many possible reasons for this, in many cases sponsors cannot be reached because they themselves are illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities. This is the core of this issue: In many cases, HHS has been put in the position of placing illegal aliens with the individuals who helped arrange for them to enter the country illegally. This makes the immediate crisis worse and creates a perverse incentive for further violation of federal immigration law."
For this reason, Doyle says "where are the children" probably isn't the right question to be asking, as calls to search for these children may hurt the very community the hashtag was meant to help. Instead, she suggests people ask how they can help other migrant children in crisis, those who are not lost but probably feel that way since being detained separately from their parents after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The scale of this crisis is impossible to ignore: CBS reports between May 6 and May 19, "638 adults were referred for prosecution. Those adults brought with them a total of 658 children."
Miguel "Andy" Nogueras, a lawyer in McAllen, Texas, told NBC News he's now routinely asking shackled migrants a question he's rarely had to ask in years past (when most parents and children involved in asylum or deportation cases were kept together in shelters): Have you been separated from your children?
"What kind of scars are we creating? The child has to be asking, where's my mom? And that kid has to be scared," Nogueras said. "I can't even fathom."
And as immigrant children are not entitled to attorneys paid for by the government when facing deportation, children who are separated from their parents often don't even have the support of someone like Nogueras when they have to go before a judge.
Glennon Doyle wants to change that. Her non-profit, Together Rising, is working with The Florence Project, an organization that offers free legal services to those detained in immigration cases. Doyle and her team are now raising funds to provide two lawyers and two advocates to the 60 children (between 12 months and 10 years old) currently living in an Arizona detention center without their parents.
Doyle says Together Rising doesn't claim to have the answer to the immigration problem, but she is certain that the current method of separating mothers from their (in some cases very young) children is not the solution, and she is advocating for change to policies that can see children deported separately from their parents, placed on buses or planes as unaccompanied minors. "We have a lot of political divides, but I just don't know a lot of mothers—even [those] who think very differently than I do politically—that believe that parents and children should be separated," she explains.
Doyle says the legal experts funded by Together Rising will help the children in Arizona with their court cases, but "their first order of business will be to instigate and maintain contact with the parents," says Doyle.
"The ultimate goal will be unification and safety. We don't know what that safety will look like. It could be asylum, it could be they have to go back to their country," Doyle says. "That is completely out of our control, but what is not out of control, is that we can get these parents and children back together," she explains, adding that keeping children with their parents is not a partisan issue, but a human rights issue.