#WhereAreTheChildren: concerns for the well-being of immigrant children in the age of viral hashtags

As #WhereAreTheChildren flooded Facebook and Twitter posts this past week, CHIL is taking a closer look at the role of social media in issues like child immigration policy and why such policies are relevant to children’s health in the first place. Given the nuanced nature and diverse moving parts, we will cover this topic in a series of posts.

There are millions of immigrant children living in the U.S., some of whom have undertaken incredibly risky journeys along the way. From on-the-ground Border Patrol agents to broad, federal immigration policy, how our government treats minors upon arrival can impact their health and well-being. The #WhereAreTheChildren trend caught America’s attention by exposing the alarming number of 1,475 children unaccounted for on the part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Much confusion followed this news. The New York Times clarified that the 1,475 are a fraction of 7,635 children who migrated mainly from “Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence and domestic abuse, according to government data.”  

So where are these 1,475 kids?

In the worst-case scenario, some kids may have fallen victim to smugglers or human trafficking. However, experts caution many of these children are likely still safe with their sponsors, who are often parents or family members already living in the U.S. Eric Hargan, secretary for HHS, said in a statement that often sponsors cannot be reached because they themselves may be living as undocumented immigrants and are hesitant to talk with federal authorities.

The lack of sponsor communication raises concerns about the health and safety of the children for whom they’re responsible. Even if a child is out of harm’s way, the sponsor could still fear using beneficial federal resources for the children. For example, undocumented children have the same right to public education as American citizens. In some states, there are federally-funded health clinics which are required to treat all people regardless of documentation status. However, if sponsors are reluctant to use federal systems in effort to avoid governmental authority, they and their children lose access to necessities like basic education and medicine. The 1,475 missing follow-up calls manifest the prevalence of this reluctance.

Moreover, while interest in the well-being of immigrant children has spiked in recent weeks, the issue itself is decades old. Albeit much misinformation followed #WhereAreTheChildren, at the very least the hashtag drew much-needed attention to this vulnerable population of young kids. It forces us, as children’s health advocates and more broadly as Americans, to reflect on how we can better fight for the health of vulnerable populations; that is, fight for vulnerable populations not based on the media or political attention they accrue but rather based on their genuine need for allyship and aid.

In the coming weeks, CHIL will take a look at current immigration policies in place to protect the health of immigrant children. Stay tuned.