On May 22, Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini wrote a column drawing attention to the 1,475 children that the U.S. government has lost track of since apprehending them at the border as unaccompanied migrants. What happened in the following days was a case study in how a false story can thrive on social media, shared by prominent journalists and celebrities because it satisfies the constant thirst for outrage that characterizes the Trump era.
The number in Montini’s column wasn’t news—it had been revealed in congressional testimony in April, and reported by PBS and others—but Montini used it as evidence to support a newsier point: The Trump administration should reconsider its new policy, announced earlier this month, of separating children from their parents when families are found illegally crossing the Mexican border. In fact, the New York Times reported in April, the Department of Homeland Security has already separated some 700 children from their parents since October 2017. That policy has been widely decried as a human rights violation.
But as news outlets have clarified in recent days, the 1,475 children who have slipped off the radar of the Office of Refugee Resettlement were not separated from their parents by the U.S. government—they arrived alone, the latest members of a wave of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America who crossed the Southwest border beginning in 2014. According to ORR, 49 percent of those minors who arrived alone in FY 2017 were placed with parents in the U.S., 41 percent with close relatives, and 10 percent with “other-than-close relatives or non-relatives.”
Headline: “The Feds Lost—Yes, Lost—1,475 Migrant Kids.” Montini did distinguish between those two groups, but his readers weren’t so careful. The story went viral on Thursday, after a Republic reader in Arizona posted a screenshot of Montini’s print column on Twitter.
That was quickly misinterpreted in a subsequent flight of conspiratorial fancy by the techie Yonatan Zunger, who wrote: “Here’s the underlying news story. 1,475 of the over 7,000 children which ICE has seized from their parents are missing and unaccounted for—and will probably never be reunited with their parents. I do not have words for how I feel right now.”
The tweet, phrased as a data-based distillation of the news with a dose of contrition, was in turn shared by writers Sarah Kendzior and Philip Gourevitch, the actor John Leguizamo, director Judd Apatow, and tech leader Ellen Pao (combined concerned followers: more than 3 million). By Saturday, it was all over your Facebook: ICE had stripped 1,500 kids from their parents, lost them, and possibly let them fall into the hands of human traffickers.
That was not what happened.
“If someone wants to consider the numbers seriously,” Zunger continued, the “program” could mean “35,000 children taken in the next year.” In reality, more than 40,000 children were apprehended crossing the border by themselves in FY 2017 and referred by the Department of Homeland Security to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which placed them with their families or, in a small minority of cases, foster parents. Extrapolating from the ORR’s (very cursory) phone survey, a fifth of those kids’ whereabouts might now be unknown to the federal government.
This alone has been received as a scandal. North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said in a statement that ORR losing track of the children was “negligence,” and “an outrage.” (The agency—under Obama—was investigated and criticized for loopholes in its resettlement practices after it unwittingly funneled Guatemalan teenagers to an Ohio egg farm where they worked long hours for low pay.)
But this particular situation might not be such bad news. In a statement on Monday, Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan criticized the way the issue had been reported. “These children are not ‘lost’; their sponsors—who are usually parents or family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them—simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made,” the statement read. This wasn’t a Trump administration talking point. Cecilia Muñoz, who advised Obama on immigration policy, explained to Steve Inskeep on NPR on Tuesday morning that families not picking up the phone makes a lot of sense: 90 percent of those (undocumented) kids are released to family, who are likely to also be undocumented. They would have good reason not to keep the feds updated on their addresses. “In many cases parents and kids have been reunited and gone off the grid, they don’t want to be contacted by a government agency,” Muñoz said.
The cycle wasn’t over yet. To complicate matters, the viral video factory Now This used 4-year-old, Obama-era photos and descriptions of undocumented child migrants in the Nogales Placement Center to criticize President Trump’s separation policy. A widely shared photo of a “prison bus for babies” turned out to be, well, a prison bus for children aged 4 to 17—but one purchased more than two years ago to provide field trips and medical appointments to kids in detention centers run by President Obama’s DHS. “This is Trump’s America,” the musician Moby offered (1.35 million followers), sharing a photo of the bus. (Fact-check: It was Obama’s America first.) “A land of belligerence and cruelty and unspeakable heartlessness.” (Fact-check: true.)
The hashtag “#WhereAreTheChildren”—which Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro used on Friday to refer to the administration’s separation policy, as reported in the Houston Chronicle—was soon an all-purpose viral hashtag for both the real story and the fake one, and a talking point for Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic politicians. Two stories had, as far as trending topics go, officially become one.
So to sum up: Is the U.S. government breaking up families during border crossings? Yes, and that’s an outrage. Is the U.S. government losing track of migrant kids who have been placed with family members in the U.S.? Also yes, and that might be—under the circumstances—OK. Are those two stories the same? No. Should it matter? Yes.