This story won’t really get rolling until Trump is asked about it and says something about how if you don’t want your child disappeared and trafficked by people who took custody of them from the U.S. government, you shouldn’t be sending them here. Then we’ll have a three-day debate a la the MS-13 “animals” thing over whether parents losing their kids forever is harrowing negligence by the feds or just a “tough” penalty for crossing the border illegally.

Reading this, it’s weird to think POTUS views Kirstjen Nielsen as a softie on immigration. It doesn’t get much more hardcore than handing off illegal-immigrant kids to strangers and then losing track of them.

From last October to the end of the year, officials at the agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement tried to reach 7,635 children and their sponsors, Mr. Wagner testified. From these calls, officials learned that 6,075 children remained with their sponsors. Twenty-eight had run away, five had been removed from the United States and 52 had relocated to live with a nonsponsor.

But officials at the agency were unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 children, Mr. Wagner said.

That’s from a NYT story published late last month that’s making the rounds today for some reason, probably because of this more recent op-ed. Rich Lowry’s right that some of the hype about it plays loose with the facts. For instance, improvements have been made in keeping tabs on kids since the problem was first identified two years ago. And all of the kids described in the Times story arrived alone at the border, without any parents. Then again, now that DHS has said it plans to separate kids from parents when they do arrive here together, it’s newly relevant in those cases too. Separating children from parents is a defensible, if stark, deterrent to border-crossing: If you’re going to chance it and involve your son or daughter in the trip, you need to expect that you’ll be separated for awhile if caught. They’ll be taken care of in the meantime and you’ll be reunited when you’re deported, but a good parent would spare them the ordeal by leaving them back home with relatives or, better yet, not attempting to make the crossing yourself.

If that’s how it worked, that would be one thing. But sometimes that’s not how it works:

Two years ago the subcommittee released a report detailing how health and human services officials placed eight children with human traffickers who forced the minors to work on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio. The report found that department officials had failed to establish procedures to protect the unaccompanied minors, such as conducting sufficient background checks on potential sponsors and following up with sponsors. As a result, the children were turned over to the people who contracted them out to the egg farm.

The timeline there should tell you that this is by no means just a Trump or a Republican problem. What typically happens is that an underaged illegal is taken into federal custody and then placed with a “sponsor” in the U.S., usually a relative but sometimes not, who’s charged with making sure they make it to their immigration hearing. The feds are supposed to do detailed background checks on the sponsors and to phone 30 days later to see how things are going, and ideally they’d notify state and local authorities that a child has been placed in their jurisdiction so that those agencies can try to keep tabs on him or her. Doesn’t always happen, though. Bureaucracies are bureaucracies. The best-case scenario is that most of the “missing” kids are actually safe with their sponsors somewhere, hiding in the proverbial shadows to avoid deportation as “catch and release” scofflaws. The worst-case scenario is … well, just let your mind wander among the multitude of unthinkable possibilities when a young kid is placed in the custody of a sketchy adult.

There’s no sense debating the morality of the policy. If you think it’s tolerable for the feds to lose track of kids because illegals deserve whatever misfortune we can serve up in the name of deterrence, nothing’s going to change your mind. I’ll give you the hard-headed policy argument for wanting this fixed instead: The more kids disappear, the more voters will be scandalized, and consequently the more difficult it’ll be to sustain support for the policy of separating kids from their parents after they’re detained. If you think separation is a useful deterrent to border crossings, however stern, the feds showing the country that they can’t prevent kids from maybe being trafficked in the process is a major threat to that policy’s continued use. They either need to figure this out or just leave the kids with their parents in detention — assuming, that is, that federal courts will let them.

Silver lining, though. If Trump’s looking for a pretext to can Nielsen, whom he seems to deeply dislike, now he’s got one.