Lawmakers pressed President Trump’s top health official on Tuesday for answers on how and when migrant children would be reunited with their parents. But Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar put the onus back on them.
He told the Senate Finance Committee that if lawmakers find a legislative fix to a court ruling that bars children from being held in detention centers for longer than 20 days, then the families could be reunited immediately. Otherwise, he said, those children will need to wait for their parents to be either granted entry to the United States or deported.
“I cannot reunite them, though, while the parents are in custody because of the court order that doesn’t allow the kids to be with their parents for more than 20 days,” he said. “We need Congress to fix that.”
Azar came to Capitol Hill to discuss prescription drug prices, but despite urging from committee chairman Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) to stick to the topic, nearly every Democrat and several Republicans wanted updates on the children who were separated at the southern border as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute all border-crossing offenses.
Under intense political pressure, Trump abruptly changed course to sign an executive order last week that would allow families to remain together while in custody.
But the zero-tolerance policy remains in place, and the government is strapped for places to house the influx of immigrants. Placing children in prolonged custody or in adult facilities could violate the 1997 Flores settlement that limits the government’s ability to detain children. A later 2016 ruling also blocks the United States from holding children in family detention centers beyond 20 days.
The order left Azar in charge of the effort to reunite the 2,300 children separated from their families that were in HHS’s custody.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Azar how many kids have been reunited. Azar said there were 2,047 in HHS custody.
Azar also suggested some of the roughly 250 kids who left HHS’s care were reunited with people other than the detained parents. “For instance, if there was another parent who’s here in the country, they’d be with that parent,” he said. “They had been placed with a parent or other relative who’s here in the United States.”
The secretary also confirmed that his department had not implemented any kind of special process for reuniting the children separated from their parents and instead were using the same protocols designed to unite children who cross the border alone, known as unaccompanied minors, with family already living in the United States.
Asked about the slow pace of reunification, Azar explained that it’s a laborious task doing background checks and verifying family connections to ensure the kids aren’t turned over to traffickers.
He could not say how long it would take HHS to reconcile all the kids with their families.
Azar also couldn’t answer Wyden’s question about how many parents know where their kids are. But he said the Office of Refugee Resettlement has a portal that could locate their children “within seconds.”
Wyden rebuffed that answer and said the secretary’s response “doesn’t line up with the firsthand accounts of parents that I hear from who desperately want to know where their kids are.”
“The American people are getting lots of deception, lots of rosy answers and not a lot of facts,” he said.
Azar also said his agency is working to connect children with their detained parents by phone, but Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told the secretary about a woman being held in her state who has not heard from her child.
“This administration is turning her into a threat. People seeking asylum should not be treated the same as some criminal,” she said. “They should not end up in a detention center never to be heard from again.”
“The challenge here is she came in illegally, and we have laws and we’re enforcing those laws,” Azar responded.