When senior government officials and immigration advocates testified before Congress Thursday about the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, they told harrowing stories about the thousands of children separated from their parents at the border last year.
One 8-year-old boy was taken from his father and sent to a shelter more than 2,000 miles away with the false promise that he would see his dad when he got there. And a mother, who lost all four of her children and was awaiting the return of her youngest, was given the wrong baby back.
While the formal policy of separating families who cross into the U.S. without documentation may have ended, senior government officials said that migrant children continue to be taken from their families at unknown rates — on the basis of minor criminal violations and even unproven claims that their parents are unfit.
The hearing, held by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, was one of the Democrat’s first displays of oversight power after taking back control of the chamber in the 2018 midterms. Testimony from senior government officials offered an inside look into the bungled rollout of the zero tolerance policy and the Trump administration’s harried attempts to reverse course after a federal judge ordered it to reunify families. The officials also shed light on the murky conditions surrounding ongoing family separations.
Some of the most revealing testimony on Thursday came from Commander Jonathan White, a career public health official who helped oversee shelters for migrant children in 2017 and 2018 at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which handles the care of migrant children under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"I do not believe separation of children from their parents is in the best interest of the child."
Even before then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally announced the zero tolerance policy in April, White told lawmakers that he wondered whether border officials were separating families because he was seeing an increase in migrant children sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. He said he approached his superiors, including then-director Scott Lloyd, about making a plan because he worried the agency wouldn’t have enough resources to handle a spike in detained children.
“I was told family separation wasn’t going to happen,” White said. In fact, he said he learned of its existence only on T.V.
“I do not believe separation of children from their parents is in the best interest of the child,” White added. “Neither I nor any career person in ORR would have ever recommended such a policy proposal.”
Tracking and reuniting families
The lack of preparation showed immediately: The Office of Refugee Resettlement didn’t have a solid mechanism for tracking which of the children in its custody were unaccompanied and which had been taken from their parents, according to White. Shelters ran out of bed space and had to move unaccompanied minors to influx shelters to make room for the younger kids separated from their parents.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement also had no way to reunite separated children with their parents, as a federal judge ordered in June. Officials had to sort, by hand, through the files of around 12,000 migrant children in its custody to see which children had been separated from their parents and where their parents were.
Originally, around 2,700 children were ultimately identified as having been separated from their parents. But a January report from the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services concluded the numbers might be higher — by the thousands — and it’s unclear how many have been reunited so far. In a court filing earlier this month, the Trump administration argued it could be “traumatic” to remove migrant children from their sponsors and return them to their parents.
Jennifer Podkul, senior director of policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, which represented many of the separated children, recounted the story of the mother being given the wrong baby. She told the lawmakers on Thursday that the zero tolerance policy was a disaster from start to finish.
“What we saw this administration do last summer was an attempt at deterrence, but in the most cruel way possible,” she said. “Our attorneys didn’t even know which children had been separated, let alone how to find the parents.”
Most of the children came from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, all countries facing extraordinary violence and poverty. Julie Linton, who co-chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Immigrant Health Special Interest Group, told the lawmakers that family separation only added to the children’s trauma. “This is really government-sanctioned child endangerment,” she said.
Still separating families
Republican lawmakers on the House subcommittee repeatedly pointed out that migrant children have been taken from their parents at the border for years, including under the Obama administration. The Department of Homeland Security can legally separate a migrant child from his or her parent if there’s a risk to the child’s safety.
Previous administrations did separate kids in specific situations, like when officials believed the parents had serious criminal records or posed a danger to the child. But the Trump administration’s practice represented a massive shift. The practice resulted from the administration’s decision to criminally prosecute everyone who entered the country without documentation and send them to jail — where children legally can’t stay — to face charges.
Despite testimony by several senior government officials, the hearing on Thursday left open many questions. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar refused to testify, and officials still haven’t revealed when family separations started happening en masse.
There’s also the issue of ongoing family separations. While the policy has ended, the Trump administration continues to separate large numbers of children on the basis of decades-old or minor criminal violations against the parents, and even unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing. (The Department of Homeland Security reported that it separated 1,768 families between October 2016 and February 2018 — prior to the zero-tolerance policy.)
“There is no process for a parent to actually say, ‘Well, that’s not true’ or to appeal a finding that they should be separated from their child, is that correct?” Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán asked White.
“There is no process,” White said. “There is nothing in the law which either precludes arbitrary separation or defines the terms for separation.”
Cover image: U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Commander Jonathan White testifies during the House Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)