The outrage over the dual news stories was unsurprising. Reports spread that migrant children were being separated from their families at the U.S. border and that Donald Trump’s Administration had lost track of nearly 1,500 kids. That led many on social media to use hashtags like #WhereAreTheChildren and #MissingChildren to demand action. But amid the viral news, confusion also spread and led many to conflate the stories.
Recent attention to the issue began at a Senate subcommittee hearing in April, when Steven Wagner, an official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), testified that his agency had checked up on 7,635 migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on their own and were then placed with adult sponsors in the U.S. The agency found that 6,075 children were still living with their sponsor, 28 had run away, five had been deported and 52 were living with someone else. The rest–the 1,475 lost children–were unaccounted for.
The children in that tally arrived in the U.S. without their parents, so they were not separated from their families by federal officials. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns about their safety; abusive homes and human traffickers are just two of the worries. It’s also possible that sponsors may choose not to answer calls from federal officials to avoid deportation–for the children or themselves. Either way, HHS has argued it is not legally responsible for what happens to the children after they leave its custody. But Senators from both parties have called on the agency to improve its monitoring. “These kids, regardless of their immigration status, deserve to be treated properly, not abused or trafficked,” Republican Senator Rob Portman told the subcommittee in April.
The issue of children being taken from their parents as they cross the border into the U.S. is also real, but separate. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on May 7 that includes attempting to prosecute every single person who enters the country illegally. This means children who cross the border with their parents are separated from their families as the adults are charged with a crime. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said when announcing the policy.
This is likely where some of the confusion originated, as hundreds of children have been separated from their parents at the border. President Trump made things more heated when he tweeted May 26 asking supporters to pressure Democrats to “end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S.” There is no law requiring separation, and the zero-tolerance policy came from his own Administration. But if HHS can’t keep track of children it was already responsible for, some fear the new policy will make things worse.
This appears in the June 11, 2018 issue of TIME.