A child plays with toys as a group of Central American refugees and asylum seekers rest in front a closed migration checkpoint in the town of Huehuetan, Chiapas state, Mexico. (Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg)

U.S. Government Says It Still Doesn’t Know How Many Migrant Children It Separated

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. officials told a House panel Thursday they still don’t know how many migrant children were separated from their parents between late 2017 and early 2018 when the Trump administration announced a “zero tolerance” border policy.

While a court order in June 2018 required the Department of Health and Human Services to reunite more than 2,700 children in its custody with their parents, that number is only a "subset" of the overall separations, said Ann Maxwell, an inspector at the HHS inspector general’s office.

"Exactly how many more children were separated is unknown," Maxwell said at a hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Maxwell said there is no system that reliably tracks children who are separated by the Department of Homeland Security and then referred to HHS.

A January report from the HHS inspector general’s office said President Donald Trump’s administration separated "thousands" more children starting in 2017 before then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the "zero tolerance" policy in April 2018.

The hearing marks a first step in House Democrats’ plan to investigate the rollout and implementation of the administration’s policy to criminally prosecute anyone caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in thousands of children being separated from their families.

“To be clear, what happened to these children should never happen in this country,” said Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat and chairwoman of the subcommittee.

Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps testified that to his knowledge, HHS wasn’t informed about the "zero tolerance" policy before it was publicly announced. DeGette and other Democrats expressed frustration that HHS Secretary Alex Azar declined to appear before the committee.

Both Republicans and Democrats at the hearing emphasized that they didn’t support separating children from their families. Representative Brett Guthrie of Kentucky, the top Republican on the panel, asked White if HHS would have advised DHS or the Justice Department to implement the "zero tolerance" policy.

"Neither I nor any career person in ORR would ever have supported such a policy proposal," White said, referring to HHS’ Office of Refuge Resettlement.

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