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.
President Trump has, in the past month, further blended the line between human suffering and political theater. In his national address last week—broadcast, with grotesque spectacle, from the Oval Office—he admitted that the situation at the border was a “humanitarian crisis.” He used that basic concession, however, to demand that other branches of the U.S. government give him the border wall he has promised to his constituents. The speech was, in a collision that is ever more common as the Trump administration wears on, simultaneously shocking and unsurprising: the humanitarian crisis, used as a bargaining chip. He seemed unable to discern between the desperation of migrant families and his own petulant wants.
The speech called to mind the callousness of Trump’s earlier reaction to the deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, 8, under the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection late last year: “Any deaths of children or others at the Border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally,” the president wrote on Twitter. “They can’t. If we had a Wall, they wouldn’t even try!”
That Trump summons more emotion for a notional wall than he does for the suffering of human children is clear enough. What this week’s report suggests, though, is how that bias gets bureaucratized. The inspector general’s office has provided evidence of personal carelessness that becomes systemic. With the report’s known unknowns—managerial ineptitude colliding with human lives—it suggests the radiating effects of leadership that, on so many levels, simply cannot be bothered to care. Later in the report: “There is even less visibility for separated children who fall outside the court case.” And: “Additionally, efforts to identify and assess more recent separations may be hampered by incomplete information.”
This past summer, the administration and its allies defended the zero-tolerance policy by suggesting that the American media had misrepresented its true effects. “This misreporting by Members, press & advocacy groups must stop,” Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted last June, as news of the family separations spread. “It is irresponsible and unproductive.” She added: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
It was an outright lie, and it was, in retrospect, clarifying precisely in its dishonesty. The administration seems to have had so little regard for the people it had put in its care that it failed to give them that smallest measure of dignity: being measured in the first place. Being counted, and accounted for. “The unfortunate reality,” the federal judge Dana Sabraw wrote in ordering a stop to the child-separation policy this summer, “is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property.”
The Office of Inspector General report makes it clear once more that chaos can have its own kind of cruel canniness. The same day the report was released, NBC News published another shocking finding: that the Trump administration had considered, among other things, the legal targeting of migrant parents in order to accelerate the deportation of their children. The same day, as well, the Trump administration appealed a judicial ruling, this one concerning the all-important national census that will be taken in 2020. The White House is fighting to ask American residents specifically about their citizenship, a move that would reverse nearly 70 years of protocol—and a change that, many argue, would lead to the undercounting specifically of immigrants and communities of color.
The White House’s legal struggle suggests another way of weaponizing data by enforcing its absence: to take human lives and relegate them to the realm of the known unknown. The tension it is bringing to the fore has lurked in the shadows cast by many of the Trump administration’s gaudy spectacles: the question of who belongs, and who does not; who will be counted, and who will not. One thing that is all too well known, within the muddle of the president’s own making, is how he has elected to answer those questions.