The number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has surged 21 percent in the past month, according to the latest figures, an increase driven by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.
Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29.
Under the “zero tolerance” approach rolled out last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, anyone who crosses into the United States illegally will face criminal prosecution. In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children stay in federal jails while their children are sent to HHS shelters.
Those shelters are at 95 percent capacity, an HHS official said Tuesday, and the agency is preparing to add potentially thousands of new bed spaces in the coming weeks. HHS also is exploring the possibility of housing children on military bases but views the measure as a “last option,” according to the HHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agency’s preparations.
HHS has about 1,300 reserve beds to accommodate more children, the official said, including several hundred at a government-owned building in Homestead, Fla., adjacent to an Air Force base previously used as a Labor Department training center.
In a statement, Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, said that the agency has “an existing network of approximately 100 shelters in 14 states” and that “additional temporary housing is only sought as a last resort when current locations are reaching capacity.”
The latest figures do not distinguish between minors who arrive without a parent and those who are separated from their mothers and fathers after they cross the border. But an official for U.S. Customs and Border Protection testified at a Senate committee hearing last week that 638 adults were referred for prosecution between May 6 and May 19 under the new zero-tolerance effort and that they brought 658 children with them.
As the scope of the family-
separation measures becomes clearer, President Trump’s immigration advisers pushed back Tuesday at false or misleading stories about their policies that circulated widely on social media over the weekend. Many seized on reports that HHS “lost” 1,475 children last year, describing them as “missing.”
But those reports were based on misleading characterizations of a follow-up phone survey conducted by HHS when it attempted to reach the adult sponsors of migrant children 30 days after releasing them to the sponsors.
HHS does not have a formal responsibility to track children once they are released to sponsors. Agency officials say that is the immigration court system’s job. And because many adult sponsors, including parents, are living in the country illegally, they may fear contact with federal officials.
“In the last fiscal year, in 14 percent of those calls, the family didn’t answer the phone,” a top HHS official, Steven Wagner, told reporters Tuesday. “But there’s no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids. If you call a friend and they don’t answer the phone, you don’t assume that they’ve been kidnapped.”