The government official leading the effort to reunite immigrant families separated at the border said Tuesday that he and others warned in private meetings over the past year that a policy that split families would be harmful to kids.
The Trump administration did it anyway.
The statement by Health and Human Services official Jonathan White, an executive director in the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, was a rare public acknowledgment that the Trump administration was well aware that its border crackdown would result in separating families ― and that doing so could cause serious emotional damage.
“There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” said White, who is a licensed clinical social worker, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
White said during his previous role as deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement he was involved in discussions over the course of a year about immigration policies that could result in separation of families. That agency cares for unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border, now including those taken away from the parents they arrived with.
In those discussions, White said he and other ORR officials “raised a number of concerns ... about any policy which would result in family separation,” based on the best interest of the child and the agency’s capacity to care for the ensuing influx in kids.
The ORR officials were told that “there was no policy which would result in separation of children from family units,” he said.
White left his post at ORR a few weeks before the Trump administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal immigration that led to the routine separation of families so parents could be criminally prosecuted. A court forced the government to stop separating families at the border and reunite more than 2,000 children already split from their mothers or fathers. Hundreds of kids remain apart from their parents.
After an outcry from the public, President Donald Trump and top officials in his administration claimed family separations weren’t their fault. They had to split up families so they could enforce immigration laws passed by Congress, they argued. Democrats were making them take children from their parents, they said, because they refused to vote for the president’s preferred immigration policies.
As White acknowledged, administration officials have discussed policies that might lead to family separations since last year. Then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary and current White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said in March 2017 that he was considering separating families at the border “in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network.”
The five officials who appeared on Capitol Hill to speak about immigrant family separations were unwilling to point the finger at anyone in the government as responsible for what happened. Along with White, Executive Office For Immigration Review director James McHenry was there to represent the Department of Justice and three officials were present from the Department of Homeland Security: Carla Provost of Border Patrol; Matthew Albence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Jennifer Higgins of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) asked them to raise their hands if they agreed with two statements. “Who here thinks that zero tolerance has been a success?” he asked first. “Who thinks that the family separation policy has been a success?”
None of the officials raised their hands.
Blumenthal then asked who was responsible for “zero tolerance and family separation.”
There was a long silence. Finally, the Department of Justice official, McHenry, said the zero tolerance policy memorandum was issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. No one else offered suggestions.
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked each official what went wrong, and they each said their agency carried out their duties ― Border Patrol apprehended people, the Justice Department prosecuted them and ICE handled deportation matters.
Only White of HHS gave a direct answer.
“What went wrong is that children were separated from their parents and referred as unaccompanied alien children when in fact they were accompanied,” he said.