It has lit up social media and made the debate over a new Trump policy of "zero tolerance" at the border even more hysterical than it would be otherwise.
The 1,475 factoid makes it sound as though the Trump administration had these children in its custody and then one day couldn't find them. Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services had placed them, along with thousands of others who showed up at the border as unaccompanied children, with sponsors in the United States, usually parents or close relatives.
HHS recently added 30-day follow-up phone calls to the longstanding program. At the end of last year, the agency called 7,635 sponsors and couldn't reach 1,475 of them. Since many of the sponsors are illegal immigrants themselves who don't want to be in contact with authorities, this isn't surprising, but it has been spun into a tale of shocking Trump administration callousness.
The misleading story has been used as a hammer against President Trump's border policy. Prior to 2011, almost all illegal aliens at the border were single adult males, overwhelmingly from Mexico. Now, 40 percent of illegal aliens at the border are families and children and almost half from Central America. This presents challenges we haven't faced before, made all the worse by gaping loopholes in the law.
The past policy was to allow adults traveling with children into the country. Hoping to stem the flow which briefly diminished after the 2016 election, before increasing again President Trump now wants to prosecute all adults. This necessitates, at least briefly, the separation of adults and children.
The US Marshals take custody of the adults, while the children are held by HHS. The prosecution of the adults for illegal entry usually happens quickly. Then, if the adult wants to return home, she or he is reunited with her child and they're sent back together.
Where it gets more complicated is if a migrant claims asylum. The Trump administration wants to hold migrants pending adjudication of their cases; if they are released, there's a good chance they'll abscond. But even if the cases are handled quickly, i.e., in a couple of months, the government has to release the children sooner thanks to a 20-year-old consent decree and associated legal rulings.
It's just one of the distortions that makes a rational policy at the border impossible. When unaccompanied children from Mexico cross the border, we can quickly return them home; an anti-trafficking law makes it nearly impossible to do that with unaccompanied children from Central America.
Many migrants are fleeing gang violence, which shouldn't by itself entitle a migrant to get asylum here. Yet asylum officers almost always approve the first step in claiming asylum anyway.
Finally, there's the practical constraint of very limited detention space ICE has only 3,000 family spaces.
Trump is right to want to get a handle on the border. According to the Justice Department, over the last two and a half years, more than a quarter-million migrants who came as unaccompanied children or part of a family group have been released into the country.
As long as migrants know they can get in, they will keep coming and bringing their children on a harrowing journey. Minors have become chits. Azcentral.com reports that it is "common to have parents entrust their children to a smuggler as a favor or for profit."
But separating parents and children at the border is a significant downside of the Trump policy. Congress can help by fixing the consent decree that makes it impossible to detain kids, even if they are with their parents, and by spending more on detention space.
There's no reason we can't handle these cases quickly and humanely, except for our insanely self-sabotaging immigration system.