No, the government hasn’t lost 1,500 children. What’s actually happening might be worse.

In this Aug. 11, 2017, photo a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent escorts an immigrant suspected of crossing into the United States illegally along the Rio Grande near Granjeno, Texas. The election of President Donald Trump contributed to a dramatic downturn in migration, causing the number of arrests at the border to hit an all-time low in April. But since then, the number of immigrants caught at the southern border has been increasing monthly. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The problem is not that federal authorities lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children, as reported by almost every major news outlet in recent weeks. The problem is that the well-intended outcry over the news obscured the larger issues with immigration policy, say three Northeastern professors who specialize in immigration law.

Last week, news emerged that federal authorities had “lost” nearly 1,500 immigrant children, but it’s not quite accurate. The government did realize it lost track of 1,475 children who crossed the border alone and were placed with sponsors in the United States, according to testimony before a Senate subcommittee in April. It’s possible that these unaccounted-for children were simply living with sponsors who chose not to answer a phone call when federal agencies tried to reach them, however.

The bigger issue, Northeastern professors say, is a policy set in motion during the Obama administration that’s now being used to criminalize immigrants at the border and forcibly separate families in order to prosecute immigrants separately.

“It’s misplaced outrage,” said attorney Matt Cameron, who teaches immigration policy at Northeastern.

The broad-sweeping policy doesn’t carve out appropriate legal considerations for asylum-seekers and effectively “criminalizes the entire immigration system,” Cameron said.

Law professors Rachel Rosenbloom and Hemanth Gundavaram, co-directors of the Immigrant Justice Clinic, echoed Cameron’s assessment.

“Statements from officials within the administration make clear that this policy is nothing but a bald attempt to deter asylum-seekers from exercising their right to seek protection from persecution,” Rosenbloom said.

We recently learned that federal agents have begun separating families at the border, the result of a new policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Can you explain more about what this policy does and does not do?

Rosenbloom: The separation of children from their parents at the border is a horrifying policy that the Trump administration began implementing months ago and recently announced formally. Statements from officials within the administration make clear that this policy is nothing but a bald attempt to deter asylum-seekers from exercising their right to seek protection from persecution. There is absolutely no legal justification for this policy. No statute requires that children be separated from their parents and no prior administration has done so. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a legal challenge and I think that we may soon see a federal court barring the government from carrying out this policy on constitutional or other grounds. This policy is also a clear violation of international law, which protects family unity and guarantees those who are fleeing persecution the right to seek asylum at our borders.

Professor Gundavaram, you mentioned this policy as well. What are some of your concerns with it?

Gundavaram: There are two aspects of the policy—which Sessions introduced as “zero-tolerance” for individuals who cross the southern border—that are concerning. The first is that prosecuting everyone who crosses the border will include people, such as asylum-seekers, who need relief that must be legally provided to them. The second concern is that the Trump administration is using the outcry over “missing children” to repeal actual protections of children in detention. It’s clear that the goals here are not to help people but to monitor and deport people.

Are there really 1,500 children missing? What happened to them?

Rosenbloom: The children in question are all unaccompanied minors—children who arrived at the border without a parent. In many cases, these are children who traveled to the United States to be reunited with parents who are already here. Under a 2008 law, Customs and Border Protection must transfer unaccompanied minors to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services. ORR then places these children with a sponsor who cares for them as they go through the process of seeking legal status in the United States. Approximately 85 percent of the time, a child is placed with a parent or another close relative. In the remaining cases the child is placed with a more distant relative or in another sort of foster care setting. ORR runs background checks on sponsors, and in some cases conducts home studies before the placement is approved.

ORR recently reported that it made follow up calls to the sponsors of almost 8,000 children but was unable to reach the sponsor in 1,475 of the cases. There are many reasons that the agency may have failed to reach a sponsor; some are as mundane as a cell phone that was out of service. It is important to keep in mind that the majority of these children are living with their parents or other close relatives. It is also important to note that immigrants are extremely fearful right now due to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions, so they may not want to be in touch with a government agency. It is always important to monitor government agencies to make sure that they are properly performing their duties, and that is particularly true under the current administration. However, there are many issues right now that are far more pressing than ORR’s inability to follow up with these children.

So, what we’re talking about here is two separate issues: The first is the federal prosecution of everyone who crosses the border, and the second is that children’s caretakers can’t be reached but not that they’re necessarily missing. What’s the connection?

Cameron: I’m concerned about the effect one has on the other. Because there is so much outcry over the misunderstanding that these children are missing, I’m concerned that this administration is going to try to pass something they’ll call a fix that will actually make the situation much worse. The reaction to hearing that these children were “missing” was to ask the Office of Refugee Resettlement to become a federal child welfare organization, when that’s never what ORR was intended to be. We don’t want them to become a social services agency. There has to be a balance here.

What are some of those other issues of concern?

Rosenbloom: One big concern is the treatment that unaccompanied minors receive before they are placed with sponsors—including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse that has been documented to occur at the hands of Customs and Border Protection. In addition, with the new policy of separating parents and children, a whole new group of children is entering the system overseen by ORR. Previously, many of the children in ORR’s care have been adolescents who came to the United States by themselves and have family here with whom they can be reunited. Now, ORR is being asked to care for very young children who have been recently traumatized by being torn from their parents’ arms and whose parents are being detained. The agency is ill-equipped to handle this. There are also other issues of concern, including the fact that the new director of ORR has imposed his political views on teenage girls within the agency’s care by preventing them from obtaining abortions.