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The struggle to locate migrant children missing from US homes

Thousands of migrant kids have disappeared from their U.S. sponsors' homes, finds investigation by Scripps News and Center for Public Integrity.
The struggle to locate migrant children missing from US homes
Posted at 4:00 AM, Feb 23, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-26 10:13:18-05

This article was produced in partnership between the Center for Public Integrity and Scripps News.

Jessica Mariela Domingo-Méndez skipped breakfast the morning of Jan. 20, 2023, and ran out the front door of her sister’s house in Culpeper, Virginia, to catch the school bus. The 17-year-old never returned home.

In the same town, 16-year-old Horlandina Lopez-Perez left her aunt’s home in the middle of the night on Oct. 1, 2022, with her 4-month-old son and a few baby clothes. 

Alexander Perez-Méndez, 17, thanked his sponsor for dinner on Dec. 4, 2021, before going to bed. That was the last time the sponsor saw him.

“She just left. She didn’t say anything,” said Jessica’s older sister, Patricia Perez-Méndez (No relation to Alexander Perez-Méndez). “No one, not even our mother in Guatemala, has heard anything from her.”

The teens are among 35 mostly Guatemalan children who have disappeared from this rural town in northern Virginia since 2017. All of them arrived in the U.S. as migrants deemed unaccompanied minors by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency responsible for their care under the Department of Health and Human Services. 

But the missing migrant children reports in Culpeper are not isolated. Following an influx of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S., thousands have disappeared from sponsors’ homes after the federal government placed them there. ORR handled 2,724 reports in 2022 — six times the number it recorded in 2020. But there is no clear local, state or federal government agency taking responsibility for searching for many of these missing children or investigating why a growing number have disappeared, the Center or Public Integrity and Scripps News have found.

ORR is the federal agency in charge of processing and placing unaccompanied migrant children with suitable adult caretakers or sponsors in the U.S. while they await immigration proceedings. 

Between January 2018 and April 2023, ORR’s National Call Center  — a 24-hour phone helpline created to advise and connect unaccompanied minors and their families with local resources during a crisis — received 6,318 calls reporting runaway migrant children, records obtained and analyzed by Public Integrity show. 

HHS has declined multiple requests for interviews by Public Integrity and Scripps News. In response to questions about how the department was tracking and investigating these cases, HHS said via email that ORR’s legal custody and authority over an unaccompanied child ends when the child is released to a vetted sponsor. 

“ORR has no jurisdiction over where or with whom the child lives after they have been released to a sponsor. If a child moves in with a different individual, they would not be considered a ‘sponsor’ or ‘potential sponsor’ by the ORR program, and ORR does not have a role in vetting such an individual,” the response said.

Sponsors are required to call police and report any missing unaccompanied migrant child. But when this happens, law enforcement and any other interested entities — embassies, for example — face a host of challenges to obtain personal information, documents and pictures that could help authorities find them.

“Some of these sponsors don’t know anything about these kids because they didn’t know them before ORR sent them here,” said Sgt. Norma McGuckin, a detective with the Culpeper Police Department assigned to investigate all missing child migrant cases here. She said sometimes they don’t even have a photo of them.

Detective Norma McGuckin from the Culpeper Police Department has been able to locate 15 of the 35 missing migrant kids who have disappeared from their sponsors' homes in the rural town of Culpeper, Virginia. ( Louis Ramirez / Scripps News)

Placement data show that more than half of all children processed by ORR between 2014 and 2021 went to live with a parent or sibling. Almost a third ended up with family or friends — typically aunts, uncles and grandparents, but also more distant relatives like cousins, step-siblings and in-laws. For the remaining 44,000 minors, almost 20,000 were placed with an “unrelated sponsor,” according to data obtained and analyzed by Public Integrity. Others aged out of the system, ran away from a facility, were deported or had their case resolved in another way.

Elissa Steglich is an attorney, professor and co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law who has represented unaccompanied minors since 2001.

Steglich said sponsorship relationships that fall apart are more common when children are placed with distant relatives or strangers. But oftentimes, children leave when a sponsor tries to force them to work or go to school, or when the sponsor can no longer take care of them.

“It can very well be that a sponsor files a report or calls the hotline and says: ‘This child is no longer living with me, I don’t know where they are,’” Steglich said. “But that child is in touch with their parents and the people that need to know where that child is.” 

Randi Mandelbaum, professor and director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at Rutgers Law, said the only way to know if these children are safe is to find them. 

“Some could be homeless on the streets, some probably found another relative, some might have ended up in the child welfare systems,” Mandelbaum said.

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor linked the influx of unaccompanied minors during the COVID-19 pandemic to an increase in child labor violations nationwide. News reports have shown migrant children working dangerous jobs cleaning up meat processing plants in the dead of night, roofing in the summer heat and building cars in factories.

SEE MORE: Scripps News Investigates: A city's not-so-secret child labor problem

McGuckin said she worries some of those missing are at risk of being exploited. She spends hours on the phone after she contacts ORR trying to get additional information. ORR has medical history, birth certificates and sometimes contact information for other family members living in the U.S.

“It depends who I get on the phone. It’s never the same person,” McGuckin said. “Sometimes they will provide me a date of birth, name. At times they might give me potential or other names of sponsors they were looking at to release this child to. And they may give me a number, but most times, I don’t get much.” 

Nearly a year after Public Integrity filed its first Freedom of Information Act request seeking specific data about unaccompanied minor runaways and subsequently inquiring about the lack of information sharing with police, ORR updated its policy online without making any announcements.

In August, the office added a new section titled, “Information Sharing with Investigative Agencies,” and expanded its policy to provide law enforcement immediate access to a minor’s photograph, date of birth and contact information for potential sponsors and family members after a child is reported missing. 

McGuckin learned about the policy change earlier this month from Public Integrity.

“It’s one thing to change your policy and another to implement it,” McGuckin said. “And why would they not tell anyone about it?"

A gap in protection

The complaints about ORR’s lack of transparency are not limited to local police investigators. Embassies in the U.S. and lawmakers have also expressed concerns.

In the spring of 2022, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., met with McGuckin while she was in Culpeper visiting her constituents. McGuckin shared the challenges she faced while investigating the missing migrant children cases. Spanberger promised McGuckin she would look into the matter. 

Spanberger “pressed” ORR to provide more information and to have "reliable communications with those on the ground about this uptick," but would not disclose any details about their communications after Public Integrity made a request for comment.

“Rep. Spanberger has heard directly from local law enforcement and community organizations about this disturbing trend,” a statement from her office said. “As a former federal law enforcement officer, she also knows that issues involving minors add layers of both urgency and complexity.”

The Guatemalan Embassy told Public Integrity and Scripps News in an email that it had raised explicit concerns to ORR about its lack of information sharing and tracking of children after they’ve been placed. The embassy, which frequently assists families with reunification, has gone as far as submitting a comment to the Federal Register on HHS’s proposed Unaccompanied Children Program Foundational Rule.

“Sponsors have reported children as runaways or missing while under their care,” the comment written on Dec. 4, 2023, said, while specifically noting McGuckin’s open cases. “Guatemala urges an analysis of ways to address cases of minors that were placed with sponsors by ORR and that are reported as missing.”

The proposed rule, 95 pages including explanatory material, would create new regulations and set mandatory standards for the care and treatment of unaccompanied children in ORR’s custody.  A main mandate would be additional local resources for children after they’re placed, according to ORR.

But critics argue that ORR’s proposed rule does not address issues with runaway kids and would further hinder law enforcement by cutting off information-sharing with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when the sponsors are undocumented. Under current procedures, ORR notifies ICE 24 hours before and 24 hours after the release of all unaccompanied minors, providing information including the sponsor’s name and current address, according to the HHS website.

“I think [the proposed rule] insulates ORR from responsibility by limiting communication when there are legitimate security and safety issues,” said Elizabeth Jacobs, director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank promoting stronger restrictions on immigration.

Immigration advocates, experts and attorneys representing migrant kids who come here without a parent caution against sharing sensitive information with law enforcement.

Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal representation for unaccompanied minors, said the number of migrant children running away was tragic but worried that sponsors who at times are undocumented could be unfairly targeted by law enforcement. 

“There’s a big tension between information sharing for protection and information sharing for immigration enforcement,” Podkul said. “I think what [Public Integrity] identified are areas where this is resulting in a gap of protection.”  

Placed with a stranger

Alexander Perez-Méndez was crossing the desert near Sasabe, Arizona, when border patrol detained him on July 2, 2021. Immigration officials at the border deemed the 17-year-old an unaccompanied minor and transferred him to Southwest Key Estrella, an ORR-funded facility in Tucson, according to a police report.

HHS is responsible for processing children who arrive alone at the U.S.-Mexico border. The 2002 Homeland Security Act defines an unaccompanied minor as a child without lawful immigration status who is under 18 and with no parent or legal guardian in the United States.

Through a vast network of contracted shelters and childcare facilities, HHS’s Office of Refugee and Resettlement helps place these children with suitable adult sponsors all across the U.S., typically with close family as the first option, extended family the next option, and distant relatives or non-relatives as a last resort.

Shortly after Alexander was taken into custody, his mother, Romelia Méndez-Simon, began asking people at the coffee farm where she worked for help figuring out how to get her son out of federal custody. The couple who owned the coffee farm gave the desperate mother the phone number of their granddaughter, Lilian Méndez-Roblero of Culpeper. 

“It surprised me,” Méndez-Roblero said, remembering the phone call from Alexander’s mother. “She was crying and begging me to help her son get out of detention.” 

Méndez-Roblero said she thought about her journey from southern Mexico 20 years earlier and felt sorry for the mother, who said her husband had passed away recently and the family was starving. Her son had made the journey to the U.S. to find work and send money back home.

“I thought, what if that was my son, what if this was their only opportunity at surviving, of living a better life,” Méndez-Roblero said.

After a few phone conversations with Alexander’s mother, who explained the steps she needed to take to be a sponsor, Méndez-Roblero agreed to help. An ORR representative called shortly after to explain the sponsor care agreement and get her consent and information for a background check.

Even if a teen like Alexander is coming to the U.S. to look for work, ORR’s care agreement has a list of requirements sponsors need to meet in caring for someone who is still a minor, including enrolling the child in school and ensuring they attend immigration court. Sponsors must also call ORR and law enforcement if a child runs away or goes missing.

Thirty days after ORR releases a child to a sponsor, case workers from the facility that placed the unaccompanied minor make a wellness call to check if the child is still residing with the sponsor, enrolled in school, aware of upcoming court dates and safe. No follow-up calls are required after this, unless a child is considered at risk, including the potential of human trafficking, according to ORR policy.

A week after getting the call from Alexander’s mother, Méndez-Roblero drove to Dulles International Airport to pick up a teen she’d never met but had agreed to care for and provide for as one of her own children. 

At the airport, Méndez-Roblero looked for Alexander and an ORR contractor holding a sign with her name. The man confirmed Méndez-Roblero’s identity with a copy of her driver’s license and asked her to sign a piece of paper. Then he left.

“It was that easy,” Méndez-Roblero said. “Without question, in a few seconds, they just gave him to me.”

Cutting safety measures

Alexander was one of 370,573 unaccompanied minors processed by ORR between 2021 and 2023. The office has helped find homes for more children in the past three years than the previous nine years combined, ORR data shows.

The number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. reached unprecedented numbers a year after the Trump administration activated a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emergency order known as Title 42. The order allowed border agents to turn back migrants and asylum seekers as a way to contain the spread of COVID-19.

At least 13,000 unaccompanied minors were removed from the country under Title 42 after it was enacted in March 2020, according to a lawsuit filed by several advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project. The groups argued Trump was weaponizing the pandemic and violating long-established asylum protections. By the end of 2020, a federal judge sided with the group and ordered the Trump administration to exempt unaccompanied minors from Title 42. 

The number of children crossing alone climbed after the judge’s order, surpassing 13,000 by mid-March 2021 and overwhelming ORR’s capacity. ORR eliminated some safety measures, such as background checks on other people living in the household of a sponsor, to speed up the process, according to a March 22, 2021 memo from ORR.

This demand also meant an increase in placements with sponsors, including strangers like in Alexander’s case. According to a Scripps News analysis of ORR placement data, unaccompanied minors were placed with an unrelated sponsor in 2021 about 40% more often than over the previous seven years.

It had been four months since Méndez-Roblero picked up Alexander at the airport and came to  live with her in Culpeper. 

The teen was getting along with her two children, going to school and working in Méndez-Roblero’s tree-trimming company on the weekends. He seemed happy — but one day, a roommate overheard him talking to someone on the phone in Mam, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala.

The roommate, one of Méndez-Roblero’s workers, said that Alexander was arranging for someone to take him to North Carolina. The roommate didn’t have any further details other than that Alexander was going to meet someone at 4 a.m. somewhere.

“I told him not to go and that I would have to report him to the police,” Méndez-Roblero said in Spanish. “I tried to tell his mother, but she stopped answering my calls. I believe she knows where he is.”

Culpeper runaways

Detective McGuckin of the Culpeper Police Department investigated seven missing juvenile cases in 2021 involving unaccompanied minors. But the following year, cases doubled, surpassing all prior years combined.

All the migrant children reported missing here were between the ages of 13 and 17.  

At least 35 migrant children have been reported missing from Culpeper, Virginia. Many of them came from Guatemala alone and disappeared from the homes of their sponsor, an adult federally designated to care for them. (Louis Ramirez / Scripps News)

McGuckin began to notice a trend as the cases piled on her desk: Sponsors were telling stories similar to Méndez-Roblero’s experience with receiving a call from family members or friends in Guatemala asking them to be a sponsor to get a child out of detention. These kids would eventually run away from their sponsors’ homes, and the person who asked them for help would stop all communication.

SEE MORE: Why are kids from Guatemala coming to Culpeper?

Nationwide, runaway cases were growing, too. Of the 6,318 calls received by ORR’s National Call Center, about 40%, or 2,724 runaway calls, were documented in 2022. 

Public Integrity made multiple requests to HHS about whether it has found what McGuckin is seeing happening elsewhere. The department responded via email: “ORR respects the privacy and confidentiality of children united with their vetted sponsors.” 

In addition to potentially losing access to an education, health care and other resources, children who leave their sponsors’ homes could face a heap of problems when it comes to their immigration status. If they miss court hearing information mailed to their previous address, it could result in an automatic deportation order, according to Jonathan Beier, a former policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. MPI is an independent nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., focused on international migration.

The more than 6,000 runaway calls to ORR between 2018 and the first four months of 2023 paled in comparison to the more than half-million children processed by ORR in the past decade or the more than a quarter-million children in general that go missing every year in the United States. But 99% of children and young adults reported missing in the U.S. are found, according to the FBI.

HHS confirmed that 3,340 individual sponsors called to report a runaway between October 2019 and April 2023. Of those calls, only 13, or less than 1%, of migrant children reported missing were found, according to the department. But central to that issue is the question of what local, state or federal agency is even responsible for finding them and tracking them?

Public Integrity filed a FOIA request in September 2022 for details about these reports, including demographic and geographical data. HHS has not responded.

But the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) and public records obtained by Public Integrity show more than 100 reports of missing migrant children have been filed in 68 cities during the past decade. This includes urban areas such as Los Angeles, Dallas and Miami. About 9 out of 10 of those children were still missing in early February.

NamUs is a national clearinghouse and resource center for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases. but not all law enforcement agencies are required to report to it. 

Scripps News designed a survey that was sent to 22 local law enforcement agencies in over a dozen small communities. All of these communities saw an increase of unaccompanied minor placements in 2021. Three of the eight agencies that responded said they had at least one case involving an unaccompanied migrant child. Half said they didn’t receive specific information that would describe the missing person as an unaccompanied migrant child.

Back in Culpeper, McGuckin sits at her desk scrolling through Facebook, looking for clues about the lost children she’s tasked to investigate.

She has found 15 of the 35 unaccompanied minors that disappeared in Culpeper living in Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Most left sponsors’ homes to find work and were safe living with family or friends, McGuckin said.

Det. Norma McGuckin of the Culpeper Police Department goes through the files of cases that remain open of unaccompanied minors missing from Culpeper, Virginia. ( Louis Ramirez / Scripps News)

One of them was Jessica Mariela Domingo-Méndez, who left her sister’s home in January 2023. McGuckin tracked the teen down to Lake Worth in Florida living with her half-brother. Local police confirmed that during a welfare check.

Earlier this month, McGuckin also located Marvin Ismael Pablo-Rafael, 13, who left his aunt’s home in October. The teen said he left because his aunt could not support him financially, according to McGuckin. Local police said the boy was safe, living with a family friend in Bonita Springs, Florida.

McGuckin hopes the new policy will allow her to get the information she needs from ORR to help her find more children. 

“They’re somebody’s children. We don’t want them to be harmed,” McGuckin said. “We don’t want them to be taken advantage of. And I think it’s important that somebody keeps track of them, and, you know, tries to find them.”

Pratheek Rebala, of Public Integrity, Patrick Terpstra, Daniel Lathrop and Rosie Cima, of Scripps News, and Neena Satija of the Houston Chronicle, contributed to this report. 

Karen Rodriguez is an investigative producer/reporter for Scripps News. She can be reached at karen.rodriguez@scripps.com 

Kristian Hernández is an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity. He can be reached at khernandez@publicintegrity.org 


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