A high-ranking Trump official compared family immigration detention centers to summer camps Tuesday, while another admitted he warned the administration about the long term trauma immigrant kids would suffer if they were separated from their parents.
Matthew Albence, the executive associate director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, and Health and Human Services Commander Jonathan White, made the comments while defending the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The policy has directly led to the separation of thousands of minor children from their parents, many of whom still have not been reunited.
Addressing concerns about conditions for children at ICE’s family detention centers, Albence said, “With regard to the FRCs, I think the best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp.”
Under a 1997 federal agreement, kids can only be detained for up to 20 days in facilities without child care licenses, and only one of ICE’s family detention centers has a license. Albence said he would like to see U.S. law changed so that parents and children could be detained together long-term.
He noted the detention centers offer amenities like access to food, water, recreational and educational opportunities, and told the committee, “I'm very comfortable with the level of service and protection that is being provided in the FRCs.”
That conclusion is disputed, even at the governmental level. In mid-July, for example, two doctors contracted by the Department of Homeland Security to conduct 10 investigations of ICE’s family detention centers over the past four years sent a letter to lawmakers citing dangerous conditions for children, who suffered extreme weight loss and severe finger injuries, were given incorrect doses of medicines, and sometimes were held in isolation for days.
“The placement of innocent children in confinement because of the action of a parent is unjust and places children in harm's way to advance a message of deterrence,” the letter reads. “This is an exploitation and an assault on the dignity and health of children and families.”
Of the more than 2,600 kids the government separated from their parents under the policy, only 1,560 have been reunited with their parents, thanks to a court order. Hundreds more remain separated with no clear reunification date in sight.
That’s something White, who has been leading the government effort to reunify families, was worried would happen. On Tuesday, White admitted to the committee that he had warned the Trump administration before the policy was implemented about the trauma kids would suffer from separation.
“We raised a number of concerns in the [Office of Refugee Resettlement] program about any policy which would result in family separation due to the concerns we had about the best interest of the child and about whether that would be operationally supportable with the bed capacity we had,” White said. “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.”
Of the 1,560 families who have been reunited so far under the court order, 300 are still being held at family detention facilities. The rest have been released — some parents with ankle monitors — and asked to appear in court at an upcoming date.
Cover image: WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 31: Immigration and Customs Enforcement Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Matthew Albence testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 31, 2018 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.