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Democrats grill Trump officials over family separations and threaten wider legal probe

A migrant from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, helps a child to jumps the fence to cross it illegally from Tijuana, Mexico, into the United States in January.
A migrant from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, helps a child to jumps the fence to cross it illegally from Tijuana, Mexico, into the United States in January. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
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At separate hearings on Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers hammered the Trump administration Tuesday over the “zero tolerance” prosecution policy that split thousands of migrant children from their parents last year and devolved into a political fiasco for the White House.

Several Trump officials acknowledged to the House Judiciary Committee that they did not speak up to supervisors or attempt to stop the implementation of the family separations at the border, despite warnings it probably would traumatize children.

Facing aggressive and sometimes angry questions from Democrats, the officials who formulated and carried out the separation system recognized communication failures among their agencies, but defended their actions as an attempt to uphold immigration laws.

At another hearing on “zero tolerance” Tuesday, the House Oversight Committee voted to subpoena records from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services for documents related to the policy.

Both developments came as the administration faces new legal scrutiny over the separations and the threat that a federal judge could force the government to comb through thousands of files to account for all migrant children potentially separated from their families since July 2017.

The intense focus on last year’s separations — a policy Trump rescinded after six weeks — left lawmakers warning that insufficient attention is being paid to the enforcement challenge it was originally meant to address: a soaring number of Central American migrants crossing the border illegally with children.

Record numbers of Central Americans have been arriving each month with children, typically seeking asylum or some form of humanitarian refuge. Homeland Security officials say the migrants are taking advantage of what they call “loopholes” in the system that limit the government’s ability to hold children in custody, then absconding, upon release, to remain in the United States unlawfully.

‘Deleted’ families: What went wrong with Trump’s family separation effort

Some GOP members Tuesday acknowledged the administrative chaos that left parents unable to locate children, as others were sent back to Central America without their sons and daughters.

“We must be fair,” said Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary committee, adding that it is “clear the system was not ready to handle the large number of children arriving at the border and separated from their parents.”

Collins called on legislators to address what he called “perverse incentives” drawing families to cross the border in large groups of as many as 350 adults and children, with the expectation they will be quickly processed and released into the United States.

At the judiciary hearing, where other Democrats blasted the separations as immoral and “un-American,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said the administration had left children vulnerable to sexual abuse while they were held in shelters, pointing to dozens of alleged assaults by staff members during the past two years.

Deutch said the shelters are reporting approximately one sexual assault per week, adding, in a statement, that the “Administration is not equipped to keep these children safe inside their facilities.”

“We share concern that I think everyone in this room feels,” said Jonathan White, the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps commander and child welfare expert who was tasked with leading the reunification effort. He added that “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.”

Some of the most heated exchanges on the judiciary panel came as Democrats demanded to know whether Trump officials raised objections to the separation plan.

White said he told HHS officials in spring 2017 that the policy would traumatize children and potentially inflict long-term harm, warning others, including Scott Lloyd, then-director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the HHS agency in charge of caring for separated children.

Lloyd, a political appointee, was seated next to White during the hearing, and he faced much of the Democrats’ wrath, mumbling at times through responses while acknowledging he did not act upon White’s warnings.

“Did you ever say to the administration: ‘This is a bad idea?’ ” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) asked. “Here’s what my child welfare experts have told us: ‘We need to stop this policy.’ Did you once say this to anybody above you?”

“I did not say those words,” Lloyd answered.

During the oversight hearing, two Republicans joined Democrats in a 25-to-11 vote authorizing committee chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) to subpoena Attorney General William P. Barr, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for records relating to “zero tolerance.”

In a statement, Cummings described the policy as tantamount to “government-sponsored child abuse” and said that after months of requests by the panel, “further delay is not an option.”

“These subpoenas will be the first issued by the committee in the 116th Congress,” Cummings said, calling the matter “a true national emergency.”

Republican Reps. Chip Roy (Tex.) and Justin Amash (Mich.) joined all of the committee’s Democrats in voting to authorize the subpoenas.

Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for DHS, blasted the subpoena vote as a “political stunt” and called it “unnecessary.”

“The Department has already submitted over 2,600 pages to Congress in response to this request,” he said in a statement. “We have worked with congressional committees in good faith and will continue to do so.”

A report last month by the HHS inspector general said the Trump administration probably separated thousands more parents from their children than previously made public. The report prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to ask a federal judge this month to order the administration to account for all of the separated children.

More than 2,700 children were taken from their parents when Nielsen and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions teamed up to criminally prosecute adults caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, including parents traveling with children.

Because children cannot be held in adult detention, they were taken to shelters overseen by HHS, while their parents typically pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and were shuttled to immigration jails in preparation for deportation.

Trump ended the separations June 20, facing widespread condemnation, a revolt within his own party and pressure from members of his family.

Days later, U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw ordered the government to put the families back together.

Officials had nearly finished those reunifications when the HHS inspector general issued a new report in January saying that “thousands” of additional children may have been separated before Sabraw’s June 26 order, including during a trial run of the family separation policy in U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s El Paso sector, which includes west Texas and New Mexico.

Sabraw, a President George W. Bush appointee in San Diego, said last week that he did not know that potentially thousands of children had been separated and then released before his June 26 order.

Justice Department officials said the vast majority of released children had been placed with a parent or close relative. But the ACLU, which filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of separated parents, called the inspector general report a “bombshell” and urged Sabraw to account for all children.

Sabraw said he would issue a ruling “as soon as possible,” without setting a date.