UN Backpedals on Child Detention Claims

No immigration claim is too unbelievable if it makes Trump look bad

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 23, 2019

Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that "[a]n independent UN expert has apologized for misspeaking during a news conference in Geneva this week, correcting his claim that more than 100,000 children were being held in migration-related US detention." The whole kerfuffle simply underscores the fact that no international immigration claim is too unbelievable if it makes the Trump administration — and by extension in the international community, the United States — look bad.

According to AFP:

Manfred Nowak, who led the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, told journalists Monday during a presentation of the report that the US had among the highest number of children in migration-related detention.

"In terms of overall, and now I am talking about children with their parents or unaccompanied children or minors, the United States is one of the countries with the highest numbers. We have more than 100,000 children in migration-related detention in the United States of America," he said.

Concerned that the number sounded high, AFP contacted the expert, who was mandated to draft the nearly 800-page report by the UN General Assembly, to ask him to confirm it.

In that conversation, Nowak confirmed several times that he stood by the figure, telling AFP that "the total number currently detained is 103,000", adding that this "conservative" assessment was based on the latest available official data as well as "very reliable" additional sources.

Of course, the number (be it "more than 100,000 children" or the "conservative" assessment of 103,000 children in migration-related detention in the United States) was wrong. But that did not prevent AFP and other news outlets from running with the story. They all ended up having to retract their reporting "after it became clear that the expert had mistakenly presented four-year-old cumulative figures as if they were the current total number of migrant children in US detention."

The UN admitted that Nowak's statements were wrong, sort of. According to AFP, on November 19, "the UN human rights office issued a statement saying Nowak's comment had been 'to some extent misunderstood.'" I have searched the website of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), but have been unable to find the statement in question.

Four years old? Who was president then (chin-rubbing emoticon)? The article continues: "The [UN] statement claimed that the expert was actually referring to data compiled by the UN refugee agency for 2015, during the presidency of Barack Obama."

Two points: First, why didn't OHCHR publish these shocking facts about the detention of migrant children in real time? Could it be that they liked the Nobel Peace Prize-winning occupant of the White House at that time, and dislike the current holder of the key to the Oval Office? To ask the question is to answer it.

Second, if 100,000 migrant children in detention under the Obama administration seems a little high, it is. As AFP explained, it "once again reached out to Nowak for an explanation, and he acknowledged that 'I should have made it clearer that this is an annual data and it is already three years old.'"

Not that this explanation makes it any better, but Nowak did add: "There was obviously a misunderstanding and I am also happy to apologize for that ... I am sorry for that." Good to know.

There are so many points to be made, I hardly know where to begin.

First, to say that any migrant child in the United States was in "detention" for any serious period of time might be stretching things a little bit. Some migrant children may be in short-term detention with their parents if they were detained as a family unit (FMU), but of course they can only be detained for 20 days under the Flores settlement agreement (FSA), and in any event U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has effective capacity to detain only 2,500 FMUs, total, at any given time.

In fact, under the FSA, no migrant child, accompanied or unaccompanied, can be detained by ICE for more than 20 days. As an aside, in section 462 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Congress placed the responsibility for the care of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). And, as I explained in an April 2019 Backgrounder, under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), migrant children (other than Mexican and Canadian nationals) must be transferred to the care and custody of HHS within 72 hours (except for when Congress fails to provide the money to ORR to shelter those UAC for more than a month).

So ORR detains all of those migrant children then? Not quite. As I noted in that Backgrounder, quoting the Congressional Research Service (CRS):

"ORR will arrange to house the child either in one of its shelters or in foster care; or the UAC program reunites the child with a family member." Initially, the majority "are cared for ... through a network of state-licensed, ORR-funded care providers that offer classroom education, mental and medical health services, case management, and socialization and recreation." That office "oversees different types of shelters to accommodate unaccompanied children with different circumstances, including nonsecure shelter care, secure care, and transitional foster care facilities." According to CRS, juveniles may only be held in secure facilities under specific circumstances: if they are "charged with criminal or delinquent actions"; if they "threaten[] or commit[] violence"; they "display[] unacceptably disruptive conduct in a shelter"; they "present[] an escape risk"; are "in danger and ... detained for" their "own safety"; or they are "part of an emergency or influx of minors that results in insufficient bed space at nonsecure facilities."

"[A] network of state-licensed, ORR-funded care providers that offers classroom education, mental and medical health services, case management, and socialization and recreation" for migrant children? Not exactly what I would call "detention". But then, I have no aspirations to work for the UN.

Nor does the United States government scour the world looking for migrant children to place in ORR care, a la the "Child Catcher" in Roald Dahl's adaptation of Ian Fleming's classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (which would make the United States "Vulgaria" and President Trump "Baron Bomburst", I guess — the UN would likely be pleased by the comparison). Rather, those migrant children are apprehended entering the United States illegally, or present themselves at the ports of entry without proper documents, or are incidentally found by ICE in the United States after entering illegally or overstaying (the latter an unlikely scenario for detention). That is to say they came here voluntarily, or someone sent (or brought) them here.

In FY 2019, 80,634 unaccompanied alien children (UACs) and 527,112 FMUs were encountered at the Southwest border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics. As noted, due to limited FMU detention space, the vast majority of the children in those FMUs were released fairly quickly after those encounters. And, according to ORR statistics, the average length of time that a UAC remained in that office's care in FY 2018 (FY 2019 statistics are not yet available) was 60 days, again, usually for placement with a family member or guardian in the United States.

What would Nowak or the UN prefer the United States do with this latter group of children? Release them on the streets to fend for themselves? Turn them over to unscreened individuals who may be traffickers, or worse? How about educate and feed them pending placement? Which we do.

Respectfully, all of this seems like little more than ill-informed Trump-bashing by so-called international "experts". If the UN really wanted to help these children, it would encourage their parents who are attempting to live and work permanently in the United States not to place themselves and their sons and daughters in the hands of rapacious criminal smugglers for the perilous trek to this country. And it would work with the governments of their countries to clean up their crime and corruption, and grow their economies, so that those parents and children would not want to enter the United States illegally to begin with.

That would be difficult, though, and possibly expensive. Talk is easy and cheap, however, so talk is what you will get out of the grandees in Turtle Bay and Geneva.

Speaking of expense, here is the web page for the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. Unfortunately, you have already missed the "Evening Reception" at the official launch of that study — it was November 19 from 6:30 to 8:30 at the Intercontinental Hotel (7-9 Chemin du Petit Saconnex, 1209, Geneva, Switzerland). I'm sure it was swell.