“Does anyone know how many children were separated from their parents?” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) asked the panel of three officials, to no response. “Does anyone know how many separated kids are still in U.S. custody?”
Schakowsky paused again, to more silence.
“No one knows,” Schakowsky concluded.
What was revealed during Thursday’s hearing to investigate the Department of Health and Human Services’ role in carrying out President Donald Trump’s disastrous “zero tolerance” immigration policy was a deeply chaotic process, where no single agency—or government department—was entirely responsible for the initial separation of immigrant children from their parents, their housing after that separation, or the eventual reunification efforts seeking to piece families back together after court orders mandated it.
In fact, Commander Jonathan White, the coordinating official of Department of Health and Human Services’ family reunification efforts, told House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that he wasn’t even sure whether the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar even had a heads-up that the “zero tolerance” policy was being implemented.
Had White been warned, he testified, he would have objected to the policy.
“Neither I nor any career person in [HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement] would ever have supported such a policy proposal,” White told the lawmakers investigating the Trump administration’s handling of last year’s family separation crisis, noting that the children separated from their families at the border “are some of the most vulnerable children in our hemisphere.”
White told the House panel that he had first heard rumors of the policy in February 2017. White testified that at the time, he told HHS officials that the policy was “inconsistent with our legal requirement” to care for unaccompanied immigrant minors.
“The consequences of separation for many children will be lifelong,” said White.
The hearing is the first of many expected to be conducted by House of Representatives oversight committees, as a newly empowered Democratic majority aims to investigate every stage of the family separation policy’s implementation. At least two other committee chairs, including the House Judiciary and the House Homeland Security committees, have announced hearings on the policy, which separated at least 2,600 children from their parents last spring.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, whose department was responsible for implementing family separation, is slated to testify before the Homeland Security Committee on March 6, where, if Thursday’s hearings are any indication, she will likely be taken to task for the conditions in which children were held while in DHS custody.
White and others on the panel took pains to note that it was the Department of Homeland Security, and not HHS, that implemented the family separation plan, and none could testify that anyone at the department had known about the policy before it was announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018.
When Rep. David McKinley (R-W.V.) made mention of immigrant children “locked in cages,” White pushed back firmly that those children were not in HHS’ custody.
“We do not put children in cages,” White said, noting that the images came from border stations operated by the Department of Homeland Security.
Other panelists described a chaotic interdepartmental response to the policy’s implementation, where some critical agencies were left out of the loop as thousands of parents were separated from their children without any mechanism to track them.
“Monitoring systems are only as good as the information put into them,” testified Ann Maxwell, the assistant inspector general of evaluations and inspections at HHS. “Exactly how many more children were separated is unknown… we potentially received and released thousands of separated children.”
White suggested that part of the blame for persisting problems in tracking down parents and on what grounds undocumented children might be separated from their parents lay with Congress, telling Rep. Joseph Kennedy III that “there is no specification in law... on the permissible grounds for separation of a child from parents.”
If Congress wants that specificity, White said, “that’s on y’all.”