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What Trump immigration policy means for children who cross the border

You might have seen the recent headlines about what’s happening to migrant children who cross the U.S. border without legal documents. Amna Nawaz explains what we really know about minors who have been separated from their parents, or who arrive at the border alone.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to immigration.

    You have probably seen the headlines in the past few days about what is happening to children who cross the U.S. border without legal documents.

    We want to take a moment to look deeper at what we know about current policy and who is being affected.

    Amna Nawaz explains.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his Justice Department, specifically prosecutors in the Southwest, would take a zero tolerance policy and pursue more criminal prosecutions, instead of civil proceedings, against migrants crossing the border illegally.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    If you cross the border unlawfully, even a first offense, then we're going to prosecute you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But those prosecutions in general have consequences for the migrants' children.

    When a parent is taken into custody to face prosecution, any children with them, by law, are placed in the care of a federal agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, which houses them in temporary shelters.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally. It's not our fault that somebody does that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How many children have been separated from their parents? The numbers aren't clear.

    The New York Times previously reported that, "More than 700 children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents, including more than a hundred under the age of 4." That was for a period from October 2017 to April 2018, the same month Sessions announced more criminal prosecutions for illegal entries.

    And more prosecutions means more families will be separated. Once they're separated from their parents, those children become classified as unaccompanied minors. Still other children arrive alone at the border. Last fiscal year alone, U.S. agents took more than 41,000 unaccompanied children into custody.

    And it's up to HHS to place them in safe settings, with preference given to family, as the children await proceedings.

    Last year, HHS tried to contact thousands of those kids and their sponsors, but couldn't find them all. The head of the office in charge of their placement was asked about that on Capitol Hill.

  • Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio:

    About 1,475 kids out of 7,000 roughly that you called, you had no idea where they were. That's not 100 percent. That about 19 percent totally unaccounted for. Why did you say 100 percent?

  • Steven Wagner:

    I was trying to illustrate to the senator that immediately upon release we know everyone is, and then time and tides intervene to change that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That prompted headlines and a social media outcry. HHS now says those nearly 1,500 kids aren't lost. They just didn't answer their 30-day follow-up phone call, a step HHS said it recently added to check on their well-being.

    But what do we know about those children? We know many arrived alone at the southern border, and that most were from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador, according to government data.

    And on top of all this, of course, is the reality migrants face once in custody.

    And on that point, Judy, there have been a number of recent reports documenting really a pattern of alleged mistreatment in detention. It's everything from inhumane and unsanitary conditions, all the way to verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

    And that's not just for adults. That's also in the case of children in custody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, certainly, all that requires — is going to require and calls for more reporting.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna Nawaz, thank you.

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