Demonstrators gather and hold signs during the “Keep Families Together” rally outside of the Homestead temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Homestead, Florida, U.S. (Photographer: Saul Martinez/Bloomberg)

Trump Official Says He Warned of Child Trauma From Family Separations

(Bloomberg) -- A Trump administration official said Tuesday he warned for months about the potential for harm to migrant children if they were separated from their parents before the administration launched its "zero tolerance" border policy earlier this year.

"There is no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child," Commander Jonathan White, a Health and Human Services official who led the agency’s family reunification efforts, told the Senate Judiciary Committee at Congress’s first hearing on the separations of thousands of families at the border.

Senators of both parties demanded answers from White and other Trump administration officials, and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois called on Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign to accept responsibility for violating the nation’s "bedrock values" on families. He said that, "incredibly," Nielsen had claimed on Twitter that the U.S. didn’t "have a policy of separating families at the border. Period."

White said that during deliberations before the policy began in April, he raised concerns "about any policy that would result in family separation." He said he was told that "there was no policy that was going to result in family separation."

Still, during questioning from Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, White said he believed that children who were separated from their parents were receiving "sufficient care" in U.S. custody.

President Donald Trump ended the policy in June amid the public outcry over the practice.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa said the administration is "failing miserably" at treating some of the migrant children humanely, although he said the family separations were an unintended result of a "well-intentioned" policy.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement official Matthew Albence defended the agency’s family residential centers, describing them as "more like a summer camp" with food, medical care and access to education and recreation. When released from government custody, each individual is given seven sets of clothing, said Albence, the executive associate director of ICE enforcement and removal operations.

Reuniting Families

As of July 26 -- the deadline set by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw -- the administration said it had reunited more than 1,400 children with their parents, while an additional 700 children remained in government custody. The administration has boasted about putting families back together within just a few weeks, but Democrats and immigration advocates argue that the government is simply righting its own wrong.

Top Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California said she was concerned that Trump’s "deeply immoral and haphazard" policy "may essentially orphan hundreds of immigrant children" if children still in government custody aren’t reunited with their parents.

Albence and other administration officials told the committee that they followed longstanding policies in reunifying families at the border. Some parents choose to go back to their home country without their child, Albence said. "They have succeeded in getting their child here" and will try to re-enter later, he said.

Most of the administration officials at Tuesday’s hearing said they hadn’t been notified that the administration was implementing the "zero tolerance" policy before Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced it on April 6.

"Blame other people if you wish, but this started with the bright idea of somebody in the White House that turned out to be a disaster," Durbin said.

No Consensus

Senators from both parties have said there’s a need to increase the number of immigration law judges and legal representatives to speed up the cases. But there’s no consensus on whether to change the rules that currently limit the amount of time children can spend in ICE custody to 20 days.

Senate Republicans are pushing for legislation to supersede the most recent interpretation of the Flores consent decree, a court agreement that mandates standards of care for immigrant minors in government custody and limits the time they can be held.

The Trump administration argues its only options to abide by Flores are to separate parents and children and move children to HHS custody, or to release intact families, something the administration dismisses as "catch and release."

Albence said it costs the government much more money to remove someone from the U.S. who has been apprehended and then released into the country, than someone who has been in custody for 30 to 40 days. Asked by GOP Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina what Congress should do, Albence said lawmakers should let the government hold families as a unit until their removal proceedings.

‘Not Your Fault’

"It’s not your fault Congress hasn’t come up with a better system," the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, told the administration officials at the hearing.

Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asked each official in turn, "what went wrong?"

White, who transferred from the HHS family reunification unit in March, said, "What went wrong is children were separated from their parents and referred as unaccompanied children when in fact they were accompanied." The other officials either said they were following federal policies or deferred offering an answer.

White said there are some cases where officials don’t know the parent’s whereabouts because they are either outside of ICE custody or were removed from the U.S. The government identification programs weren’t designed for reuniting children and parents, he said.

Blumenthal said the family separations were "clearly foreseeable" as a result of the zero-tolerance policy for families seeking asylum at the border. "It was part and parcel of the policy to inflict pain" on undocumented migrants, the senator said, adding that there seems to be "no prospect" of reunifying many of the families.

White said 429 children remain in custody whose parents have left the U.S.

"It is absolutely my heartfelt conviction that we must reunify those children with their parents," White said. "If I could have reunified all those children with their parents by yesterday it would be done."

Grassley and two committee members, Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, are among those pushing a bill to supersede Flores, that would "in a humane and fair way" allow for families to be kept in custody together for weeks or months, they wrote in a Sunday op-ed in USA Today.

Grassley and Feinstein wrote to the administration asking for an investigation into allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at facilities run by the Health and Human Services Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, citing reported incidents involving adult and child victims.

Trump Official Says He Warned of Child Trauma From Family Separations

Democratic Senators Patty Murray of Washington, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Feinstein wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Monday voicing “significant concerns” about the “validity” of the data that the administration has provided about family separations and reunifications, and asked for a detailed explanation of how the administration had determined that certain families weren’t eligible for reunification.

Sabraw on Monday ordered the Trump administration and the plaintiff -- the American Civil Liberties Union -- to submit plans for reuniting children with parents who have been deported or who have been released from government custody and not yet located. He is also weighing whether to extend a stay on the deportation of reunified families.

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