02:50 - Source: CNN
Watchdog: More kids separated than previously reported
Washington CNN —  

A senior Department of Health and Human Services official told lawmakers on Thursday that he had raised concerns about separating families apprehended at the US-Mexico border to three Trump appointees before the administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy was announced.

“The concerns which I expressed were two: First, that this would be inconsistent with our legal requirement to act in the best interest of the child and would expose children to unnecessary risk of harm. Second, that it would exceed the capacity of the program,” Commander Jonathan White told a House oversight subcommittee.

RELATED: Trump administration defends efforts to identify and reunify separated children

White said he had shared those concerns with then-director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement Scott Lloyd, then-acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Steven Wagner and HHS counselor Maggie Wynne. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is a component agency of Health and Human Services.

During the hearing, White drew a clear distinction between his agency, which is tasked with caring for and placing unaccompanied children with sponsors in the United States, and the Department of Homeland Security, and repeatedly noted that he did not know the policy would be enacted until it was publicly announced.

White said neither he nor any career personnel at the agency responsible for the care of unaccompanied migrant children would “ever” have supported the government policy that led to family separations.

“I do not believe that separation of children from their parents is in the best interest of the child,” he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

“Neither I nor any career person in (the Office of Refugee Resettlement) would ever have supported such a policy proposal,” said White, who previously served as the deputy director of the office’s Unaccompanied Alien Children program.

Thursday’s hearing on the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration, which resulted in thousands of children being separated from their undocumented parents, is one of the first displays of the oversight power House Democrats now hold.

“To be clear, what happened to these children should never happen in this country,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Diana DeGette, D-Colorado. “On behalf of the American people, we are here today to understand exactly what happened, why it happened and what needs to make sure that – be done to make sure that – it never happens again.”

The hearing comes after a Health and Human Services inspector general report, released in January, found that thousands more children had been separated than had been reported by the government. The separations occurred before the “zero tolerance” policy was announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018. HHS had previously identified 2,737 children who were separated from their parents.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar, however, had declined a request to testify Thursday, angering Democrats.

“I’m sorry Secretary Azar is passing the buck to you,” DeGette told White. Azar has pledged to testify before the Energy and Commerce Committee in the coming weeks regarding the President’s proposed 2020 budget.

“(I)n the near future, Secretary Azar will testify in front of the full Energy and Commerce Committee regarding the Administration’s FY 2020 budget request. He looks forward to answering questions Members may have about HHS programs, including those related to the ORR program,” said a statement issued by his department Thursday.

Throughout the hearing, White said several times that no one at HHS, to his knowledge, knew the zero tolerance policy was going to happen.

When prompted by Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, White said he was unaware of communication among leadership about the family separations once they began taking place.

“After the separations began taking place, are you aware of anyone from HHS attempting to tell DOJ or DHS that the separations should be halted?” Castor asked.

“I’m not aware of that, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t occur,” White said.

When White learned of the possibility of the policy being implemented in early 2017, he produced memos, wrote emails and raised his concern in meetings, he said.

When the zero tolerance policy was announced in 2018, he was no longer with the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked White why, if he had elevated his concerns to department leadership, nothing was done about it.

“I was told that family separation wasn’t going to happen. And I have no reason to doubt the veracity of their statements. I think that’s what the people who told me that also believed,” answered White.

White said that over recent years, the number of minors in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement has been between 40,000 and 60,000 a year. Last year, the agency received 49,100 children in its care and thus far this fiscal year, there have been around 14,000, according to White.

When asked whether there was any way to predict how many more children would arrive in care this year, White said, “We have to use bed capacity modeling to anticipate how many beds we’re going to need, but the most honest answer to your question is: No one can predict how many kids will cross the river tomorrow.”

In 2018, 86% of the children in Office of Refugee Resettlement care were released to sponsors. Forty-two percent of the children released went to parents, 47% percent went to close relatives and 11% went to more distant relatives – like cousins – or non-relatives like family friends, generally identified by the parent in the home country, said White.

DeGette’s subcommittee, which has oversight of HHS, asked for documents related to family separation last month. It received hundreds of pages, but those fell short of fulfilling the initial request, according to Ryan Brown, DeGette’s communications director. HHS has agreed to provide additional documents by Friday.

The committee also heard from Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project and lead ACLU attorney in an ongoing family separation lawsuit.

“I feel confident in saying that the family separation practice is the worst thing I have seen in my 25 plus years,” he said.

The suit, Ms. L et al. vs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement et al, was filed last year by the ACLU on behalf of a Congolese woman seeking asylum in the US who had been separated from her 7-year-old daughter. The case was later expanded to a class action lawsuit.

White told the subcommittee that if it were not for the court case, there would have been no way to reunite children with their parents in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody under the existing authorities.

“We were able to successfully reunify thousands of children with their parents because Judge (Dana) Sabraw in the Southern District of California created a pathway through his orders for us to do that,” he said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the first name of Rep. Diana DeGette.