Here is the finding listed as the “key takeaway” in a report compiled by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services and released to the American public on Thursday:
The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown. Pursuant to a June 2018 Federal District Court order, HHS [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] has thus far identified 2,737 children in its care at that time who were separated from their parents. However, 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.
It bears repeating: The total number of children separated from a parent or guardian by immigration authorities is unknown. Carelessness can suggest sloppiness, but it can also suggest something more literal: a simple lack of caring. The Office of Inspector General report, an attempt to graft care, after the fact, onto a process that seems to have involved little of it, doubles as a broad accounting of the U.S. government’s treatment of the families it separated, as part of its “zero tolerance” policy, at the southern border. And its conclusion presents evidence that Donald Trump’s administration has managed to combine both kinds of carelessness at once. Chaos, cruelty, xenophobia, thousands of children more than were previously acknowledged to have been separated from their families: They’re made manifest in the numbers in the report, and in the phantom numbers that poor record-keeping has made it impossible to know.
Last year, when the separation policy and its horrific results catapulted to the attention of the American public, members of the Trump administration and their allies in the media attempted to downplay the situation by suggesting that empathy for the families, torn apart and caged like animals, was wrong. “Child actors,” Ann Coulter said. “Don’t believe the press,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned. It was a particularly pernicious twist on Orwellianism—lies aimed not at the mind, but at the heart—and it is a strategy that has, despite its profound untruths, continued over the past several months. In November, a Reuters photographer captured a picture of a woman and two children running to evade the stinging smoke of tear gas that had been lobbed at a group of migrants by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The image was, in some quarters, dismissed as a hoax: the whole thing staged for the cameras, the argument went, in order to produce sympathy. A deceit in the guise of journalism, allegedly; a conspiracy that turned empathy itself into the liar.