The debate over the Trump administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents last year, is set to ignite Tuesday when the House Judiciary Committee holds its first hearing on the issue.
The panel is scheduled to hear testimony from administration officials, including the former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is tasked with placing unaccompanied minors with sponsors in the US.
House Democrats have long denounced “zero tolerance,” which called for the criminal prosecution of adults who illegally crossed the border and as a result, separated families. Now, in their newfound power as the majority, the hearing is the biggest opportunity yet for them to hammer officials over its rollout and subsequent ramifications.
The policy has come under renewed scrutiny following a Health and Human Services inspector general report that found thousands more children had been separated than previously acknowledged. Just how many remains uncertain, given the disarray among agencies at the time. Of the more than 2,000 children who have been identified, however, many have been reunited with their parents, according to court filings in an ongoing family separation lawsuit.
Still, Democrats are likely to latch on to the inspector general report as an example of the chaos that ensued when the policy was implemented and the resulting consequences.
The list of witnesses includes Nathalie R. Asher from Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Carla Provost from the US Border Patrol; Joseph Edlow from the Department of Justice; Commander Jonathan White from the Health and Human Services Department; and Scott Lloyd, the former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Earlier this month, a House oversight subcommittee heard from White, who told lawmakers not only that he wouldn’t have supported the policy but that he had raised concerns prior to its implementation.
White said he had shared those concerns with Lloyd, then-acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Steven Wagner and HHS counselor Maggie Wynne.
Lawmakers will likely draw from that testimony and look to Lloyd to explain what occurred after those conversations with White.
But as evidenced by the list of witnesses, the hearing will likely touch on all facets of the “zero tolerance” policy – from how it came to fruition to who knew what when to its eventual rollout.
More often that not, it’ll likely be Lloyd who will be asked to respond, as the former head of the agency that took in the children who were separated from their parents after being apprehended at the US-Mexico border.
To that end, Lloyd’s attendance is significant. He’ll be the highest official to date to respond to family separation. HHS Secretary Alex Azar declined a request to testify before a separate panel earlier this year.
Lloyd’s no stranger to the national spotlight. During his tenure as director, Lloyd, who holds strong anti-abortion-rights views, was ensnared in a controversy over attempts to prevent a pregnant teen in the agency’s care from getting the procedure.
In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the administration on behalf of a 17-year-old immigrant who had been blocked by the administration from getting an abortion. The undocumented teenager came to the country without her parents and was in a federal shelter. An appeals court eventually ruled that she could get terminate the pregnancy.
The lawsuit is one of several issues that are likely to be raised during the hearing. The administration has also been called to respond to January’s inspector general report as part of an ongoing family separation lawsuit and is awaiting an order from the judge on whether it’ll be required to identify children and parents who were separated before June 26, 2018, the date a preliminary injunction was issued.
Democrats have cited the report as an example of a flawed, unnecessary policy and also requested responses from the government.
The administration, for its part, has defended its efforts to identify and reunify children who were separated from their parents, and warned that having to track down families separated before June 2018 would be an enormous and difficult task.