#WhereAreTheChildren Showed Progressives Didn’t Learn Anything About Immigration From the Obama Administration

One woman who was deported during the Obama administration told Rewire.News she found it frustrating that so many liberal-identified people were willing to acknowledge the inhumane treatment of immigrant families as long as it was being tied to Trump.

[Photo: A child stands up in a crowd of immigrants]
Social media campaigns like #WhereAreTheChildren only add to the confusion, by simplifying a complex, messy issue in which some immigrants are deemed as more deserving of empathy than others. John Moore/Getty Images

On May 26, the day after National Missing Children’s Day, Ryan Knight launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #WhereAreTheChildren. The co-founder and director of engagement for Build the Wave, an organization that “connects volunteers to Democratic candidates in the races that matter the most,” tweeted to his 180,000 followers, “1,500 CHILDREN ARE MISSING after federal agencies lost track of them.” Knight did not provide any other context for the campaign, did not clarify what agencies he was referring to, or specify what population of children had gone—as he said—”missing.” Rather, he asked his followers to take part in the campaign by writing “Where are the children?” on a piece of paper and posting a picture of themselves holding the paper, using the hashtag #WhereAreTheChildren. What followed Knight’s tweet, and the tweets of others, was a viral hashtag that conflated immigration issues spanning multiple administrations, while also spreading misinformation that could prove harmful to the immigrant children it sought to help.

Since the election of President Donald Trump, many people have become more aware of the unjust nature of the U.S. immigration system, and are eager to highlight the abuses they see as tied to the Trump administration. But the unjust nature of the system is not specific to one political party. Social media campaigns like #WhereAreTheChildren only add to the confusion, by simplifying a complex, messy issue in which some immigrants are deemed as more deserving of empathy than others.

“It’s the sanitation of history that really dehumanizes immigrants,” said Azul Uribe, who was deported under the Obama administration.

White liberals, in particular, with large platforms and access to information are failing to educate themselves not just on the basics of the news reports they purport to be responding to with their “activism” and “resistance,” but on the very basics of the immigration system. For example, many of those tweeting #WhereAreTheChildren were using immigration agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and Border Patrol interchangeably despite these agencies having vastly different responsibilities, oversights, and missions.

Presumably, Knight was referring to the almost 1,500 children ORR had lost track of, according to Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), at a congressional hearing in April. But those children were not “lost in the system,” as many using the #WhereAreTheChildren hashtag contended. Rather, they were released from ORR custody to their sponsors—meaning their parents, legal guardians, or other family members—during the Obama administration.

Last year, during a three-month period, ORR could not establish contact with the sponsors of these 1,475 children. Many legal experts have explained there are valid reasons why the families of these children would not respond to ORR, such as because of the legal status of other family members. Or, as Michelle Brané, director of Migrant Rights & Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, explained on a Wednesday press call, “It just means their family didn’t answer that day or they changed their phone number; it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been lost in the system.”

Unaware of this context, many on social media alleged that the 1,500 children had been trafficked. While there have been incidents in which migrant children in ORR custody were funneled into trafficking rings, there is no evidence to suggest the nearly 1,500 children ORR was unable to establish contact with have been trafficked. Also, children typically are in ORR custody because they migrated alone to the United States and were transferred to the agency’s custody while they awaited reunification with their family.

Some early supporters of #WhereAreTheChildren had equally large platforms and still chose to disseminate harmful misinformation. Attorney Amee Vanderpool, for example, has over 130,000 Twitter followers. Vanderpool tweeted, “If the government forcibly removes 1,500 children from their parents, the government is responsible for their safety and well-being. Right now they can’t even LOCATE THEM.” Initially, the attorney also provided the number to what she said was the “ICE reporting hotline,” encouraging people to call and ask, “Where are the children?” But the number Vanderpool provided was to the Homeland Security Investigations’ tip line, which is the arm of ICE responsible for carrying out raids on undocumented communities. That number is specifically used to alert ICE of immigrants to be targeted for detainment and deportation.

As has since been clarified by other publications, the larger issue is that well-intentioned social media users were actually conflating two separate stories. The 1,500 children Twitter users were referencing had been released from ORR custody and were unaccompanied immigrant minors when they migrated to the United States under the Obama administration. The children being “forcibly removed from their parents” blended the children who were long ago released from ORR custody with the children affected by the Trump administration’s new policy of separating family units at the border. Now, instead of detaining a parent and child together at a family detention center as they await their asylum proceedings, parents are being funneled into detention centers and their children are being placed in ORR’s custody.

We Belong Together’s Natalia Jaramillo told Rewire.News that her campaign, a project of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), wanted to use the spotlight on #WhereAreTheChildren to help provide a framework for the conversation.

On Wednesday’s press call, the campaign’s co-founder and the director of NDWA, Ai-jen Poo, said that the response on social media to #WhereAreTheChildren made it clear that people are “desperate for ways to help.” In response “to the growing number of immigrant children and youth separated from their families at the border or their homes, the 1,500 children the government can’t account for, and the abuses committed against thousands of immigrant children and youth in detention,” according to a press release, the campaign is holding a National Day of Action on June 1 to help the U.S. public “channel their passion and rage.”

Thousands around the country are expected to rally today for immigrant children and families as part of the National Day of Action, called “Families Belong Together,” organized by a large coalition. From California to New York, 30 cities have registered on Families Belong Together “in response to the growing number of immigrant children and youth separated from their families and detained in inhumane conditions surviving horrible abuses,” according to a press release from We Belong Together.

A little known fact Brané shed light on during the Wednesday call is that children being separated from their parents at the border face long-term—and in some instances—permanent separation. “There have been cases of parents deported without their children or children as young as 18 months deported without their parents,” Brané said.

Maritza, a Central American woman who recently migrated to the United States with her four daughters as part of the Migrant Caravan, currently doesn’t know where one of her daughters is. Three of Maritza’s children are under the age of 18, so they were processed and released as asylum seekers along with Maritza. Her fourth daughter, who is over the age of 18, remains detained in an adult detention center somewhere in the United States. During Wednesday’s press call, Maritza tearfully explained that when she calls the number provided to her by immigration officials to obtain information on her daughter, she doesn’t get an answer.

Also on the call was Mitra Ebadolahi, the Border Litigation Project staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego & Imperial Counties and the author of Neglect & Abuse of Unaccompanied Children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a report released May 23. That report is based on 30,000 pages of records relating to the abuse of children in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody at the southern border between 2009 and 2014.

Over the long Memorial Day weekend, many tweeting #WhereAreTheChildren referenced the ACLU’s report. Instead of demanding that CBP be held accountable for the alleged abuse of children at the border, they asked that the Trump administration be held accountable, without realizing the abuse outlined in the report spanned 2009-2014, during the Obama administration.

While violence at the border is prevalent and ongoing, as illustrated by the recent murder of 20-year-old Guatemalan migrant Claudia Patricia Gómez González by a CBP agent, the problem is that people are failing to investigate and push back against the system as a whole. Instead, as Azul Uribe explained to Rewire.News, well-meaning white liberals, in particular, find it easier to tie the system’s failings specifically to Trump. It is true that “horrors” are emerging unique to the Trump administration, especially as it relates to his administration’s treatment of asylum seekers. But Trump’s inhumane mandates are a continuation of an already racist system. Self-proclaimed allies can actually do harm by disseminating inaccurate information, pushing for oversimplified solutions to complex problems (without consulting those most affected by the system), and by erasing the experiences of immigrants whose personal stories don’t fit their tidy narratives.

“My Reality Can’t Be Erased”

Uribe was deported to Mexico under the Obama administration nine years ago, but the immigration system funneled her into the deportation pipeline over two administrations. Uribe attended college in a small town in Utah unaware of her unauthorized status until she received a misdemeanor charge while in college. The cop who arrested her in 2006 asked if she was undocumented and subsequently transferred her to immigration authorities.

At the time of her arrest, Bill Clinton’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was already in play, which, as Vox’s Dara Lind reported, “increase[d] penalties on immigrants who had violated U.S. law in some way (whether they were unauthorized immigrants who’d violated immigration law or legal immigrants who’d committed other crimes).” The law is largely responsible for the current “crimmigation” system, in which undocumented immigrants are funneled into deportation proceedings from the criminal justice system.

Uribe’s case played out in the courts shortly after the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE. In the early days of the Bush administration, Immigration and Naturalization Services handled cases like Uribe’s, but as her case dragged on, she witnessed the overhaul of the immigration system and how it kicked into overdrive under President Obama, who infamously became the “deporter-in-chief.”

“Because I was undocumented and had this criminal record, even though it was just a misdemeanor, the Obama administration decided to deport me—and it’s pretty common that people don’t believe that happened to me because they have this idea of who Obama was,” Uribe said.

As #WhereAreTheChildren played out on social media during Memorial Day weekend, Uribe said she saw people on Twitter attribute Obama-era images to the Trump administration, including a picture of a “prison bus for babies.” Many assumed the bus pictured, outfitted with many rows of car seats, was being used by CBP to transport the children being taken from their parents at the border. Rather, the image was from 2016 and featured in a press release from the private prison giant GEO Group related to its oversight of the Karnes County Residential Center, a family detention center in Texas. (The Obama administration expanded family detention in 2014 in response to the number of Central Americans seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.)

Uribe told Rewire.News she found it frustrating that so many liberal-identified people were willing to acknowledge the inhumane treatment of immigrant families as long as it was being tied to Trump. When the images that recently went viral were originally releasedby an Arizona-based media outlet during the height of the Central American “humanitarian crisis” in 2014and included images of immigrant children laying on the floor of a makeshift processing facility wrapped in tinfoil blankets, many of these same liberal-identified people turned the other cheek, were reluctant to hold their party accountable, or outright refused to acknowledge the atrocities being committed by the Obama administration.

“It’s really isolating, not just experiencing family separation under Obama, but being a deportee. Part of that struggle is people talk about you like you’re dead or like you’re not real,” Uribe said.

The 34-year-old told Rewire.News that talking about her experiences in the immigration system with conservatives is actually easier because she knows where she stands with them.

“With liberals, when I’ve talked about my experience being deported, they basically say I don’t know what happened to me. I paid thousands of dollars to an attorney, I was legitimately traumatized, I know what happened to me. I know that my family has to Skype me into baptisms or funerals or other family events. Under the [Trump] administration, with so many people pretending that this system hasn’t been violent, I have to keep telling myself that I exist, that my story is real. That my reality can’t be erased.”

Uribe said that liberals have actually told her that people like her are the reason Trump won, implying that her insistence on more nuanced, complicated conversations around immigration have made people “on both sides” feel like “there’s no pleasing immigrants.” Never mind that Uribe has been out of the United States for nine years and as an undocumented immigrant, could not vote.

“I want to talk about immigration in an honest way, and that includes holding Democrats accountable too,” she said. “Leading up to the election, if I [tweeted] about Hillary Clinton not being a friend of ours, about how her husband is responsible for my ten-year bar [from the United States] and she’s never denounced that law; about how she only expresses concern for model minority immigrant narratives from Dreamers, people would say to me, ‘Do you think Trump would be any better for you?’ Well-intentioned white people think it’s OK to say that to me, and I think that’s fucking abusive. For me that’s like asking: Do you want to die being suffocated or drowned? I don’t want to die, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

ICE deported Nancy Landa within four days of Uribe. The two friends met after their deportations while doing advocacy work from Mexico. Like Uribe, Landa wants to expand the conversation to address what she sees as the failings of the mainstream immigrant rights movement, which she says has “neglected the deported.”

Courtesy of Azul Uribe

On her blog, called Mundo Citizen, Landa detailed how ICE deported her because a notary her family hired to help her adjust her status filed a fraudulent immigration claim on her behalf. In 2008, after Landa was unable to renew her work authorization, she consulted another immigration attorney and learned her immigration case was closed years prior, there was likely a warrant for her arrest, and that ICE could detain her at any moment. The attorney told Landa, who volunteered on President Obama’s presidential campaign, that she wasn’t a “high priority” immigrant, meaning she lacked a criminal record and would likely not be targeted by ICE for deportation. However, under the Obama administration, ICE abruptly deported Landa in 2009. She would have qualified for the DREAM Act had it ever passed.

In the years since, the 37-year-old has shifted from calling herself a “deported Dreamer”—as a way of acknowledging her experience as an undocumented immigrant in the United States and connecting it to her struggle as a deportee living in Mexico—to dropping the “Dreamer” label entirely. Landa explained her decision in a February 2016 blog post, writing that many of the Dreamer activists are “part of an advocacy machinery that has neglected the deported. She added, “Take the two presidential candidates for instance. Both Clinton and Sanders have added Dreamers to their campaign teams, using them to appear friendly on immigration to buy the Latino vote, and in exchange for what? Haven’t we learned anything from the two Obama administrations when it comes to immigration?”

Landa told Rewire.News that her story and her political opinions that have developed in the years since her deportation are an “inconvenient truth” to conservatives, liberals, and Latinx immigrant rights activists employed by large, mainstream organizations, all of whom refuse to acknowledge the realities of deportees like her.

Landa said another deportee in Tijuana once described being deported as being broken into pieces and thrown in a blender, and then trying to put yourself together again only to find that you may never feel “whole again.” Landa said the analogy resonated with her deeply.

“For the last nine years, I’ve been dealing with the shadows of deportation and people not understanding who gets targeted in the United States for deportation. Even before Trump, people didn’t believe my story, they didn’t believe that Dreamers were deported. I encountered this even with immigration advocates and other immigrants, who truly believed you needed a criminal record to be a Dreamer deported under Obama,” Landa said.

Uribe refers to immigration as a complex, ever-changing “Rubik’s Cube of laws,” and even with her experience in the immigration system, doesn’t position herself as an “expert” on the topic of immigration law. In that respect, she said she doesn’t fault U.S. citizens for not understanding the nuances of the immigration system or its web of laws, but it’s the simplistic narratives—like that the immigration system became bad under Trump or that Obama was good to immigrant communities because of the existence of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—that she takes offense to.

“The entire goal of Dreamers is to not be a deportee like me. In that framework, the reality of someone like me can’t even be acknowledged because I’m what everyone wants to avoid,” said Uribe. “I guess nuance isn’t pragmatic.”

This was echoed by Landa, who said that moving forward, those who want to help immigrant communities need to stop having such a narrow view of immigration policy.

“We used to talk about creating a pathway [to citizenship] for 12 million undocumented immigrants [currently in the United States], now we’re focused on just 800,000 [DACA recipients]. You even saw it play out with #WhereAreTheChildren. A lot of people were demanding justice for the kids taken from their parents, but what about their parents? What about migrants who aren’t parents or children?” Landa said. “What worries me is that so many people mobilizing around immigration right now aren’t familiar with the immigration system because they can afford to be ignorant about policy. When there is a change in party, will people still care?”