The fates of 1,475 migrant children recently came into question when the Department of Health and Human Services reported them as “missing” in a report to Congress in April 2018.
These children are not missing in the sense that they have disappeared. They simply remain unaccounted for in the follow-ups conducted by the US government with the families into which the children were placed.
Since 2012, I have conducted research with undocumented youth and young adults and their families in Los Angeles.
I have spoken with hundreds of undocumented youth who crossed the US southern border without a parent or legal guardian between 2007 and 2016 – often referred to as “unaccompanied minors.” When apprehended at the border, they are processed by the Department of Health and Human Services and placed with a “sponsor” in the US, typically a family member, who is responsible for their safety and well-being.
While my research may not explain why the government has failed to keep track of these individuals, it reveals the various challenges facing the 180,000 children who have been placed with sponsors in the US since 2013.
My time with unaccompanied youth in churches, support groups, immigration courtrooms, summer and weekend camps, community cultural festivals and family gatherings reveals that children may end up leaving their sponsor’s care for reasons ranging from financial need to their pursuit of their own idea of a better life. I use pseudonyms to respect confidentiality.
Feelings of Responsibility
In my conversations with recently arrived migrant youth, they have expressed feeling like a financial burden to their sponsors. In many cases, their sponsor is someone from whom they have been separated for many years, such as a parent or older sibling, or someone they have met for the first time.
Many have told me how basic requests like needing a new toothbrush, deodorant, socks or calling cards to communicate with family abroad make them…