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Senate panel skewers Trump officials over migrant family separations

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called on Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to step down, amid immigrant families still separated July 31. (Video: Reuters)

Trump administration officials defended the rationale for their now-defunct family separation strategy during tense Senate testimony Tuesday, but they did not challenge lawmakers’ assertions that the initiative was a failure.

Facing scathing criticism from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, one senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official pushed back at claims that authorities mistreated migrants in their custody, instead likening his agency’s family detention centers to “summer camp.”

“These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water,” said Matthew Albence, a top ICE official. “They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured; there’s basketball courts, there’s exercise classes, there’s soccer fields we put in there.”

Congress demanded answers from federal immigration officials on July 31, about the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy. (Video: Reuters)

But that and other defensive statements drew the ire of lawmakers such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who dared the five Trump officials to tell the panel that the administration’s “zero tolerance” border crackdown was a success. Not one raised a hand.

“Who is responsible for zero tolerance or family separation?” Blumenthal pressed.

“They probably can’t answer that or they’d get fired,” quipped Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee chairman.

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

Tuesday’s hearing was a wide-ranging probe of immigration enforcement practices and the administration’s attempt to deter illegal border crossings by removing more than 2,500 children from their parents and sending them to government shelters. After six weeks, President Trump abruptly reversed the policy June 20, and days later U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw, a Republican appointee, ordered the government to return the children as quickly as possible.

The administration has reunited more than 1,800 children and is now working the more complex cases of parents with criminal records, as well as more than 450 who were deported without their sons and daughters. On Monday, Sab­raw told the government to provide details of its plans to continue facilitating reunions for parents who have already been deported.

Some of the more candid answers came from Cmdr. Jonathan White, the public health official who organized the reunification effort at the Department of Health and Human Services. He said that more than 250 federal caseworkers and contractors have been enlisted and that he has worked “18-hour days” for the past month.

White, who was a top official in the HHS office that cares for migrant children weeks before the Trump administration announced “zero tolerance,” told senators, too, that he had warned his superiors that separating children from their parents carried a “significant risk of harm” and could inflict “psychological injury.” But he said he was assured that the government was not planning to implement the practice.

None of the other officials who testified Tuesday said they were briefed in advance that the White House was moving forward with its dramatic crackdown until it was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early April.

When Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sharply prodded the panelists to identify what went wrong, calling the separations “a calamity,” White was the only official who acknowledged a mistake. 

“What went wrong is the children separated from their parents were referred as unaccompanied alien children when in fact they were accompanied,” he said, describing some of the communication failures that forced members of his team to sort by hand through more than 12,000 files of migrant children in government custody to determine which ones had arrived with a parent.

Tuesday’s hearing also brought renewed calls from Democrats for the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. 

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), one of Nielsen’s most persistent critics, pointed out that the panelists who testified were “not the shot-callers.”

“They are following orders, they are carrying out policies that are clearly not of their own making,” Harris said, adding, “I believe that those who created this policy and implemented it, including Secretary Nielsen, should step down.”

Albence deflected senators’ questions about care for migrant families in federal custody, including the “family residential centers” he compared to summer camp. That comment drew stunned expressions in the room.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked the Trump officials if they would want their children to be detained in one of the ICE facilities. She elicited no affirmative responses.

Other Democratic members of the committee, including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), appeared dumbstruck at the defensive statements and said the Trump administration had created a situation at the border that was like a Kafka novel. Leahy told them that the kids entertainment venue Chuck E. Cheese’s had a better system for preventing children from being separated from their parents than did the U.S. government.

“The initiative was a prosecution initiative, and our focus was on the prosecution element only,” Carla L. Provost, the acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, told Leahy, citing the “zero tolerance” policy for border crossers. 

“At no time did we not know where any adults that were in ICE custody were,” Albence added, insisting that once adults are deported, the government no longer tracks them — making it difficult to reunite them with their children.

Albence said it was “virtually impossible” to process the cases of immigrant children within the 20 days required by the “Flores settlement,” meaning that children were also leaving ICE custody and sometimes falling through cracks in the tracking system. The Flores settlement is a federal consent decree, dating to 1997 but amended in recent years, that mandates standards for the care of children in immigration detention.

Some Republican members of the panel were sympathetic to the argument. “It’s not your fault that Congress hasn’t come up with a more sensible system,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). He expressed dismay that the reunification effort was distracting immigration enforcement agencies from focusing on drug traffickers and other threats.

Cornyn also criticized calls by some Democrats to “abolish ICE,” inviting Albence to tell the committee what the result would be. 

“You cannot have strong border security with a void in the interior,” said Albence, who runs the ICE division responsible for interior arrests and deportations. When he complained that the government was focusing on reunification because a judge was forcing the issue, that drew a sharp rebuke from Democrats.

“Blame other people if you wish,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), “but this started with somebody in the White House with a bright idea that turned out to be a disaster.”