A series of hearings in the coming weeks will bring renewed scrutiny to the effects and rollout of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to separation of thousands of migrant families at the southwestern border last year.
In the first of three planned congressional hearings, two panels of witnesses testified before the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee on Thursday about the 2,737 migrant children that have been currently identified as having been separated from their parents last year.
“This hearing will serve as an important opportunity to assess the Department of Health and Human Services’ preparation and response to the Family Separation Policy, its chaotic efforts to reunify children with their families, and the long-term effects of separation on the health and well-being of these children,” said Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Diana DeGette of Colorado in a joint statement.
The hearing follows a 24-page watchdog report from January that found that “thousands” of children may have been separated from their parents before the administration formally announced its policy in 2018. Also, the report said the exact number of separated children is “unknown.”
The report’s findings cast doubt on whether officials will ever know the true number of separated families, suggesting that the government’s official total may be undercounting the effect of its policy.
“This policy was a cruel disaster from the start,” Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney and deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, told the PBS NewsHour after the report was released. “This report reaffirms that the government never had a clear picture of how many children it ripped from their parents.”
Gelernt, who has overseen the group of legal challenges against the administration’s policy, is scheduled to testify at today’s hearing. Among the witnesses expected to testify: Kathryn Larin of the Government Accountability Office, HHS’ Commander Jonathan White, and Dr. Julie Linton of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Immigrant Health Special Interest Group.
However, HHS Secretary Alex Azar declined a committee request to appear.
White previously told lawmakers in a July hearing that HHS officials warned the Trump administration of possible “traumatic psychological injury” from family separations.
The House Judiciary Committee will also hold a hearing on family separation on Feb. 12, while Department of Homeland Security DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is expected to testify before the Homeland Security Committee on March 6.