In recent press briefings, both Sessions and Nielsen referenced the risk of adults trafficking and smuggling children into the United States as an additional justification for separating the families at the border. Nielsen confirmed that if parents could not provide proof of parentage, it was assumed the child was likely trafficked, and their child will be taken into custody.
To back up her claims of the increase incidence of child trafficking, Nielsen cited a 314% increase in trafficked children between October 2017 and February 2018, intimating that concerns of child trafficking were the primary motivation for taking custody of the children. In fact, in her June 18, 2018 press briefing, Nielsen accused critics of not caring about trafficked children, stating that “minors have been used and trafficked by unrelated adults in an effort to avoid detention.”
Statistics can be misleading though, and while a 314% increase may sound “staggering,” as Nielsen asserted, when you use the actual numbers, another story emerges.
Between October 2016 and September 2017, there were 46 children brought across the border by unrelated parents, presumably to avoid detention. Between October 2017 and February 2018 that number increased to 145. There were approximately 31,000 people who cross the border illegally during that time period, which means that the total number of children brought into the country by unrelated parents who were apprehended at the border was one-half of one percent. Something to be taken seriously certainly, but hardly “staggering” and hardly a justification for separating all immigrant parents from their children at the border.
Also, this is an incredibly important point: those 145 cases involved family fraud, not trafficking. Trafficking involves bringing children (or adults) into a country for the purposes of sexual or labor exploitation. Family fraud involves people presenting themselves as a biological family for a variety of reasons, including to increase their chances of being admitted into the country. In most cases of family fraud, the child knows the adult, either as an extended family member, family friend or neighbor.
Immigration attorneys point out that in many cases of family fraud, the child’s parents may already be in the States and have made arrangements to have their child brought to them by a friend or extended relative. In other cases, the parents are deceased and a family friend, relative or neighbor who has informal guardianship of the child, attempts to enter the country. At least two cases that Sessions referred to as “child smuggling” were actually grandmothers who were raising children because the biological parents were deceased, according to recent court documents.
And in still other cases, the biological parents are unable to show proof of a legal relationship because the births of their children were never registered—a common occurrence in families who live far from a city center in a developing country with rudimentary processes for registering births.
It appears as though both Sessions and Nielsen significantly inflated the incidence of children being brought into the country by unrelated adults as a justification for separating families (and not reuniting them when it was feasible to do so). They also conflated “family fraud” with the more serious (and far more egregious) acts of child smuggling and trafficking.
According to pleadings filed in the ACLU case against ICE and the Trump administration, to date, there have been no known cases of children being trafficked across the Souther Border among the families separated in response to Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy.
Dr. Michelle Martin is a social worker, policy specialist and Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton in the Department of Social Work, where she teaches social welfare policy, and researches dynamics related to immigrants, political asylum-seekers, refugees and other displaced populations.