Washington (CNN)The former head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency tasked with caring for unaccompanied migrant children, appeared to concede he didn't raise concerns shared by colleagues about the controversial "zero tolerance" immigration policy with superiors.
Senior HHS official says he didn't share concerns about family separation with superiors
The response from Scott Lloyd, now a Health and Human Services senior adviser, was prompted by Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the policy.
"Did you ever say to the administration, 'this is a bad idea, here's what my child welfare experts have told us. We need to stop this policy.' Did you once say that to anybody above you?" Jayapal asked.
"To answer your last question. I did not say those words," Lloyd replied.
The question stemmed from a hearing earlier this month that was also attended by Jonathan White, the coordinating official of Department of Health and Human Services' family reunification efforts. White said at the time that 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.
The exchange was one of many charged moments on Tuesday. During the hearing, Trump administration officials drew clear distinctions about each agency's role in the controversial "zero tolerance" immigration policy that resulted in separating thousands of children from their families -- seemingly punting responsibility on the different facets of the policy which continues to have repercussions nearly a year later.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler kicked off the hearing by slamming the administration.
"When a stranger rips a child from a parent's arms without any plan to reunify them, it is called kidnapping," he said.
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.
Administration officials explained present day challenges, like an influx in family apprehensions, how the "zero tolerance" policy was rolled out, and defended efforts reunify families.
That provided little reprieve to Nadler, who immediately questioned Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost about the consequences of separations. Provost said there were "lessons learned," but also said that it's not Border Patrol's responsibility to reunify families, pointing to the Department of Health and Human Services instead.
Health and Human Services, however, did not develop the policy -- it was directed by the Justice Department. To that end, Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson asked James McHenry, the director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an agency within DOJ, about whether the agency provided any legal analysis on the policy. Johnson said he couldn't "discuss deliberations."
Lawmakers repeatedly raised concerns about the tracking of families who had been separated at the US-Mexico border. Lloyd disputed Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's claim that children were not being properly tracked.
"I wouldn't agree with your characterization that there was not tracking. The tracking that occurred, occurred within our normal case management system," Lloyd said. "Our tracking of the circumstances under which kids come into our care is ongoing."
ICE head of Enforcement and Removal Operations Nathalie Asher and DOJ Director of Executive Office for Immigration Review James McHenry also told lawmakers that they did not raise objections to the policy when pressed by Rep. Sylvia Garcia.
Lawmakers also pulled from newly obtained documents.
Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch introduced a new set of HHS documents obtained by his office that showed thousands of allegations of sexual abuse against children in custody, prompting a heated back and forth between him and White.
"I am deeply concerned with documents that have been turned over by HHS that record a high number of sexual assaults on unaccompanied children in the custody of the Office of Refugee and Resettlement," Deutch said.
White interjected to say that it was not HHS staff, later adding, "this is a longer conversation." Rep. Tom McClintock provided White another opportunity to respond to the allegations.
"We share concern that I think everyone in this room feels. Anytime a child is abused in the care of ORR is one too many," White said.
"We abide fully with the laws this Congress has passed, in terms of PREA, I mean the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Violence Against Women Act," he added. "And we are very proud of outstanding track record of full compliance, including referring every allegation ... for investigation. And the vast majority of allegations prove to be unfounded when they are investigated by state law enforcement and federal law enforcement and the state licensure authorities to whom we refer them. It is important to note, that I am not aware of a single instance anywhere of an allegation against the ORR federal staff for abuse of a child."
Nadler also blasted the administration for not turning over sufficient records in a timely manner.
"Even now months after the height of the crisis created by the implementation of its cruel and inhumane immigrant policies, basic questions remain unanswered," he said. "In part that is because the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, until last night, stonewalled the legitimate requests by this committee that were made over six weeks ago."
He added: "That is absolutely inexcusable."
A separate committee, the House Oversight Committee, voted Tuesday to issue subpoenas related to family separation.
The vote was bipartisan with Republicans Justin Amash of Michigan and Chip Roy of Texas voting with the Democrats. The subpoenas will be the first issued in the committee in the 116th Congress.