American Desaparecidos

Future Trump deportees? Mexican-American children, Los Angeles.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville famously wrote of the “fast-fish and loose-fish” doctrine. A dead whale connected to an occupied boat or marked with a distinctive symbol – “waifed” – was a recognized possession, a fast-fish. Any other whale found floating was a loose-fish. His narrator Ishmael uses these two principles of the whaling community as the basis for an inquiry into the relationship between freedom and power.

“Often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow’s last mite but a Fast-Fish?” Finally, he summarizes the outcome of these reflections with a disturbing conclusion: “What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish?”

In the instance of 1,475 missing migrant children, we watch the untenable claim by the Trump Administration that these children are both fast-fish and loose-fish. First, the Department of Health and Human Services takes custody of unaccompanied minor children or separates them from parents detained as undocumented immigrants. Second, the department releases these children to community sponsors including relatives and unrelated people.

At this point of release, claims HHS, the children are no longer an official responsibility. If the children cannot be located for an accounting, the state is not at fault. The children may be anywhere in the wide blue sea of humanity, but no responsibility abides with a government that took custody.

Officials at the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement make a safety and well-being telephone call 30 days following the release of children after a screening process that is supposed to ensure safeguards against the exploitation of children. That remains the extent of official concern. There are no home visits, child interviews, educational evaluations, or psychological and physical health reports. There is none of the consistent long-term follow-up required by child welfare assessments.

In the dispassionate tones of a bureaucrat delivering terrible news in an attempted neutral mode, hoping no one will notice, HHS acting assistant secretary Steven Wagner reported the results of this approach to the US Senate investigating committee: “From October to December 2017, ORR attempted to reach 7,635 UAC and their sponsors. Of this number, ORR reached and received an agreement to participate in the safety and well-being call from approximately 86 percent of sponsors.

From these calls, ORR learned that 6,075 UAC remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight UAC had run away, five had been removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to live with a non-sponsor. ORR was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC. Based on the calls, ORR referred 792 cases, which were in need of further assistance, to the National Call Center for additional information and services.”

In short, even if that single voluntary check-up call identified problems, the department only gave the adult sponsors another telephone number to call. Information provision became a means of avoiding official responsibility for the traumatic issues certain to prevail among unaccompanied children taken into custody or separated from their parents.

It is not simply the absence of care that appalls but the rationalizations for that lack of care. When US News & World Report and other media sources pointed out the glaring fact of some 1,475 missing migrant children – who knows if this number is accurate given otherwise appalling official performance? – the Internet began to push out exculpations of the Trump Administration.

One much-cited effort came from Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review. Lowry wrote “Of course, all the context is left out of the USA Today piece, which at one point falsely says, “the federal government has lost — yes, lost — 1,475 migrant children in its custody.” But these children weren’t in HHS custody. They were placed with sponsors that HHS vetted. It’d obviously be better if HHS could locate all of the sponsors in its follow-up.”

Any state, local, or licensed private agency in the United States making child placements bears legal responsibility. Failure to supervise, screen, and monitor placements leads to legal liability and serious civil and criminal consequences. There is a significant body of case law on supervisory failure, negligence, and malpractice in child placement. Inability to locate a massive number of children would seem prima facie evidence of supervisory negligence.

So what Lowry and others are claiming intrinsically is that, unlike any US child welfare agency, HHS custody of migrant children, screening of sponsors, and placement of children does not incur supervisory responsibility. That is not child placement. That is abandonment.

Lowry and similar minds have denounced the disappearance of nearly 1,500 children as fake news. An amoral casuistry accompanies and enables such blithe dismissals of disappearing children. Common sense instructs that one must know where children are. Decent people know that lost children demand an immediate community alarm.

Lowry’s well-educated writing gets mobilized to argue that, yes, it would be better if HHS kept proper track of children it handed to sponsors, but these children are not our responsibility. This is no better than a shoulder shrug. The Golden Rule has disappeared along with the children.

Inevitably this is a story about brown children, about children who were torn from poor brown parents, about brown children not provided a minimal standard of care, and about the criminalization of brown migrants of all ages and origins.

Race inflects administrative decision-making in this story in every possible way, from the build-a-wall-against-coloured-people mentality of the white supremacist Trump Administration to the casual treatment of missing brown children.

If the equivalent of a large suburban middle school filled with white children had gone missing from the face of the earth, thousands of FBI agents and federal officers would not get home to sleep until those children were located. With children from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico, there was no emergency and no allocation of investigative resources.

When Melville had his narrator ask “And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?” he addressed our civil subjectivity, our awareness of social oppression. The question’s framing suggests a silent question to follow: What will you do about it? Will the mistreatment of children stand? Will they remain desaparecidos?

Photograph courtesy of Joey Zanotti. Published under a Creative Commons license.