On Tuesday, officials from the Trump administration refused to admit they were unprepared to reunite families separated during the government’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, despite accusations from immigration experts and an inspector general report stating the government had no comprehensive system in place.
Democrats grilled officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Health and Human Services and Customs and Border Protection during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, asking why authorities had ripped apart families without first developing a method to efficiently track the separations.
In his opening statements, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the committee, said the fact that immigration agencies did not ensure they could speedily reunite families shows “an utter indifference to human suffering that shocks the conscience.”
House Democrats also expressed concern over the absence of a system for tracking pre-verbal children. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she held a 9-month-old who had been separated from his family at the border and who had “no identification wristband or ability to communicate.”
Trump officials continually denied accusations that they were unprepared or had no system in place for family reunification.
Carla Provost, chief of U.S. Border Patrol, said there was no automatic way to search CBP and HHS databases, meaning officials had to manually go through records to match parents with their children. (Provost said the system has since been updated to include this function.)
However, she would not admit that CBP was unprepared to track family separation and disputed a January report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services saying there was never “an existing, integrated data system to track separated families.”
Provost repeated throughout the four-hour hearing that CBP was focused on prosecuting adults rather than on reunifying families.
Scott Llyod, the former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said he disagreed with the Democrats’ assertion that there was “no tracking” in place before zero tolerance, and denied allegations that he had instructed colleagues to stop keeping a spreadsheet that tracked separated families.
Nathalie Asher, an acting executive associate director with ICE, came the closest to admitting that the government’s tracking system was a disaster.
Asher said she and her colleagues were never given instructions about how to create or maintain family separation records before the zero tolerance policy was implemented. “We had three different agencies involved in tracking either child or parent,” she said, referring to ICE, HHS and CBP, “and those systems were siloed from one another.”
“It was just simply mass incompetence.”
Cmdr. Jonathan White, of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, said the majority of the 2,816 children separated under the government’s zero tolerance policy have been reunited with their families as a result of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
White said the majority of kids who remain in ORR custody have deported parents who want their children to stay in the U.S., and that the agency is working to reunite them with sponsors.
But when House Democrats asked whether the government planned to locate and reunite the potentially thousands more families separated before the zero tolerance policy ― a task HHS officials have already described as a “burden” ― White said ORR’s legal authority over children ends once they are released from the agency. Asher didn’t directly answer the question.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said there was no excuse for not having a more sophisticated tracking mechanism in place, since the Trump administration quietly piloted the family separation policy in Texas from July to October 2017.
“It was just simply mass incompetence,” Lieu said. “The folks involved in that should just be ashamed with themselves.”