Originally published by The Washington Post
Trump administration officials mounted a fierce defense Tuesday of the controversial family separation policy at the border, defending sites as “more like a summer camp” than holding facilities, and arguing that the detention system simply was not set up to facilitate court-ordered reunions easily.
“I’m very comfortable with the level of service and protection that is being provided,” top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official Matthew Albence told the Senate Judiciary Committee about the conditions at the “family residential centers,” which he likened to summer camps.
He and other administration officials told senators that the government had mechanisms in place to return children to their parents after they were separated, but they had to improvise a new reunification system under orders from a federal judge.
“This is a novel situation,” said Cmdr. Jonathan D. White, a public health coordinating official for the reunification effort. “The systems were not set up to have referrals include parent information.”
White stressed that the border agencies could not have sidelined the victim trafficking law that was prompting precautionary separation of children from their parents without the judge’s order to focus on family reunification instead. “We could not have done that without him ordering that,” White said.
The defensive comments from Trump officials dumbfounded Democratic members of the committee, such as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who charged that the Trump administration had created a situation at the border that was like a Kafka novel, suggesting that children’s entertainment venue Chuck E. Cheese had a better system for preventing children from being separated from their parents than 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 that the administration adopted for border crossers.
“At no time did we not know where any adults that were in ICE custody were,” Albence added, stressing that once those adults were deported, the government no longer tracked them — making it difficult to reunite them with their children.
Albence added that 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 enhanced in recent years, that mandates standards for the care of children in immigration detention.
Some Republican members of the panel seemed sympathetic to the argument. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) expressed concerns that the reunification effort was distracting the immigration enforcement agencies from focusing on apprehending drug traffickers and other threats.
Albence complained that the government was focusing on reunification because a judge was forcing the issue — sparking a sharp rebuke from Democrats for trying to deflect responsibility from the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy.
“Blame other people if you wish, but this started with somebody in the White House with a bright idea that turned out to be a disaster,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
Also called to Capitol Hill are Jennifer Higgins, the associate director of Refugees, Asylum and International Operations at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and White, who leads the effort to return more than 2,500 children to their parents.
The committee includes several Democrats who have been among the sharpest critics of the family separations, including Durbin and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.).
After illegal border crossings increased in spring, the Trump administration launched a “zero tolerance” initiative that sent parents to courthouses for prosecutions to strip them of their children, whom the government placed in shelters.
Public outcry forced President Trump to back down after six weeks and halt the practice June 20. Days later, U.S. District Court Judge Dana M. Sabraw ordered the administration to reunite the parents with their children, touching off a scramble to put the families back together within 30 days.
The administration said it reunited more than 1,800 children by the deadline and was now working through its more challenging cases. Hundreds more parents are already back in Central America, and on Monday, Sabraw asked the government to provide details of its plans to continue facilitating reunions for parents who have already been deported.