Lawmakers Cast Doubt on Claims of Smooth Interagency Handling of Family Separations at the Border

A guard walks past toys donated by protesters outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Florida. A guard walks past toys donated by protesters outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Florida. Brynn Anderson / AP

The Trump administration is projecting an orderly process with smooth interagency collaboration as it enforces its “zero tolerance” policy at the border, as well as the ensuing executive order and court decisions, but lawmakers are suggesting things are actually chaotic behind the scenes.

The controversy largely revolves around the administration’s decision to separate minors from their parents who were detained for violating immigration laws. The process is a complicated one, with Customs and Border Protection typically making the arrests, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detaining the parents, and the Health and Human Services Department finding sponsors to house children or placing them in their own facilities. Last week, President Trump issued an executive order to end the family separation policy and this week a federal court in California created an expedited time frame for the government to reunite families that had already been separated.

About 2,300 children were separated from their families while the policy was in place. According to the White House, 500 of those have since been reunited with their families. Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, on Thursday echoed recent congressional testimony by HHS Secretary Alex Azar in saying that the administration must vet parents before their children are returned to ensure they are not involved in nefarious activities such as human trafficking.

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“HHS, [the Homeland Security Department], and [the Justice Department] are continuing to work through ensuring that remaining children are reunified with their parents,” Walters said. “Again, they need to go through a process to ensure that the children who are going to be reunified are placed back with either the person who is their parent or a sponsor. There is a vetting process that takes place to ensure that the child's well-being is being put first.”

HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for finding placements for undocumented children migrating into the United States. As of last week, HHS said all of the separated children were “being cared for in HHS-funded facilities.” The department is also responsible for unaccompanied minors who arrive in the country without a parent or guardian. HHS said all minors are given the opportunity to speak with “a vetted parent, guardian or relative” within 24 hours of arriving at one of the department’s facilities either by telephone or video. Attorneys representing the minors are granted unlimited telephone access with them.

Azar testified this week that he can find any separated child “within seconds” in a database HHS maintains in conjunction with Homeland Security. That database, according to DHS, includes how the minors “illegally entered the country” and, “to the extent possible,” information about and the location of the minor’s parent or guardian.

“Every parent has access to know where their child is,” Azar said. “We want to ensure the process is more efficient.” The secretary said he deployed U.S. Public Health Service officers to work with ICE case managers to meet with parents to help them fill out the appropriate paperwork to “confirm parentage” and initiate the reunification process.

Azar spoke just before a federal judge in California granted a preliminary injunction against the administration’s separation policy, mandating that all children be reunited with their parents within 30 days. Minors under the age of five must be reunited within 14 days.

As of last week, ICE said it already implemented an “identification mechanism” so parents are linked to family members on an ongoing basis throughout their detention and removal. The agency has designated locations for separated parents to ease communications with children in HHS custody and has coordinated with HHS to reunite children and parents before removals. All ICE facilities have postings advising parents trying to locate or communicate with their children, the agency said. The helpline available for parents to call is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Matthew Bourke, an ICE spokesman, said the agency did not have “anything to add” since the court ruling went into effect. Spokespeople for HHS and CBP did not respond to inquiries into how they would implement the new court mandate.

Even before the court ruling, lawmakers were skeptical of the rosy picture Trump officials were painting.

“It sure doesn't line up with the firsthand accounts from parents that I hear from that desperately want to know where their kids are,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told Azar at his testimony.

Many reports have said calls to the ICE helpline have gone unanswered and parents are still unaware of their children’s location. The top Democrats on five different House committees on Friday said the Trump administration has left many unanswered questions about how it is reuniting families. Trump’s executive order that ended the separation policy did not spell out a specific reunification plan.

“The administration still has not provided consistent information on a family reunification plan, whether children are still being separated at the border, or whether your agencies have accurate information about whether detained children entered the United States as unaccompanied minors or were separated from their parents upon entry,” the ranking members wrote in a letter to the inspectors general at DHS, HHS and the Justice Department. “We also have serious questions about whether public statements by officials at each of your agencies were based on facts or matched the internal decision-making process that led to the implementation of these policies.”

The HHS IG is already investigating the matter, as is the Government Accountability Office.

A further complication for the Trump administration as it seeks to implement the court’s decision is a previous ruling known as the Flores settlement, limiting the number of days immigrant children can spend in government custody to 20. The White House said it would not be able to enforce the new court mandate without a congressional fix to Flores. That appears unlikely to happen any time soon, with the House overwhelmingly rejecting an immigration reform bill earlier this week.

“The court ruling two days ago clearly shows the need for congressional action to fix our broken immigration system,” Walters said. “This ruling further complicates the already convoluted judicial ruling that makes effective enforcement impossible. The injunction must be removed immediately or we can't keep the country safe.”

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