According to the United Nations, an unprecedented 69,550 migrant children have been held in U.S. government custody over the past year — to put that number in perspective, that’s enough minors to overflow a typical NFL stadium. It is also more children detained away from their parents than any other country, according to the international organization’s researchers.
On Monday, Manfred Nowak, who leads a U.N. Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty that was published this week, told the Agence France-Presse that the figure used in the study was a “conservative” assessment, based on the latest available official data as well as “very reliable” additional sources.
Earlier this year, The Department of Homeland Security infamously reported that the administration did not even know how many thousands of children were separated and was struggling to account for those who had been released to sponsors.
After numerous stakeholders raised serious concerns about the health and safety of immigrant children at Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)-funded facilities, a court order in Ms. L v. ICE required The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to identify and reunify certain separated children in its care. HHS then identified 2,737 children who had been separated from their parents and were in ORR care as of that date. However, they acknowledged that the number was not exact.
“Thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the court, and HHS has faced challenges in identifying separated children,” the report from the agency admitted.
The U.S. government has also previously acknowledged that being held in detention can be traumatic for children, putting them at risk of long-term physical and emotional damage.
According to The Associated Press, some immigrant families have even sued the U.S. for hundreds of millions of dollars, claiming that their children have been harmed due to being held in detention. A federal judge ordered the government to provide mental health screenings and treatment to immigrant families traumatized by family separations. This move came after attorneys for separated families presented evidence that the government’s policy “caused severe mental trauma to parents and their children” and that U.S. government officials had knowledge of the risks involved with family separation when they implemented it.
“[Immigrant children] often suffered threats to their safety on the journey to the U.S,” Ann Maxwell, Health and Human Services’ assistant inspector general for evaluations, told PBS earlier this year. “And, of course, for some children, they experienced the additional trauma of being unexpectedly separated from their parents after coming into this country.”
After weeks of insisting he had no choice but to separate children and adults who cross the border, President Donald Trump reversed course on his policy by signing an executive order that he said would end the practice back in June.
“It’s about keeping families together,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”
Since retreating on family separation, the administration has tried other ways to reverse a major surge in asylum seekers. Back in September, the administration introduced a policy to deny asylum to anyone who passes through another country on the way to the U.S. border with Mexico without seeking protection there first.