Philadelphia immigration attorney Elizabeth Yaeger spent the last several days working to separate fact from fiction, to discern the circumstances surrounding 1,475 undocumented children who were being described as "missing" after their placement with sponsor families in the United States.

Now, she and other advocates have concluded that those children are likely not missing, despite the gut-jarring hashtag #WHEREARETHECHILDREN that's all over Twitter.

Instead, the probable answer is that the government wasn't able to contact the children's sponsors, in part for lack of an extended effort.

And some of those families, because they may be undocumented or have uncertain immigration status, might not rush to answer government queries.

"They might be unlikely to respond," said Yaeger, the supervising attorney of HIAS Pennsylvania's Immigrant Youth Advocacy Project, which provides legal services to low-income children. "Many, if not most, of those 1,500 kids are likely safe."

But without confirmation of the children's safety, she said, legitimate doubts and concerns remain.

The issue of missing children arose from the April 26 Senate testimony of Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services.

From October to December 2017, he said, the Office of Refugee Resettlement tried to contact 7,635 children and their sponsors for a safety check. Of those, 6,075 were found to be with their sponsors; 28 had run away; five had been removed from the country, and 52 had moved to live elsewhere.

The resettlement office could not "determine with certainty" the whereabouts of 1,475 children, he said.

That left open the question of whether those children, who came here alone, many fleeing and violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, could have been trafficked or taken.

While one government agency has reached out to locate children, another, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has been targeting those same children and families for deportation, Yaeger said.

HIAS attorney Elizabeth Yaeger at work.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
HIAS attorney Elizabeth Yaeger at work.

What's definitely true, she and other experts said, is the issue of "missing" children has become conflated with a separate matter: The Trump administration's move to separate children from parents when families try to enter the United States, often while seeking asylum at the southern and southwest borders.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy in March, pledging to prosecute parents who previously may just have been sent home.

"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," Sessions said, adding, "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."

Attorneys for the ACLU and other advocacy organizations say there is no law requiring such separation.

None of the 1,475 "missing" children are HIAS clients. But Yaeger made sure to share information about the situation with colleagues, given the public attention around the issue.

In a news conference call Tuesday, hosted by the progressive-policy advocate Immigration Hub, advocates said the government appears to have made a simple phone call to each of the sponsors.

"It's very likely most of them are not really lost — they're not home, they didn't pick up the phone, they didn't want to talk to ORR," said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women's Refugee Commission in New York.

David Leopold, a partner at Ulmer & Berne LLP and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called the inability to confirm the whereabouts of 1,475 children "tragic" and "awful" and "agency incompetence."

"But it's a completely separate issue from the issue of separating minors, children, from their mothers and fathers at the border," he said.

That issue will be the focus of Friday's national "day of action" in cities across the country. In Philadelphia, the ACLU and other advocate groups plan to rally at noon outside the Center City offices of ICE. Protests are planned in Allentown and Reading on Saturday.

"It's important to not conflate these two issues, and to understand the nuances," Yaeger said. "The point is keeping families together."