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What we learned from congressional hearing on family separations

Tuesday’s hearing over child separations at the border, held in front of the House Judiciary Committee, elicited heated debates and strong public reactions, as representatives from several government agencies attempted to answer congressional inquiry over the controversial immigration policy. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to Judy Woodruff about troubling new information and what happens next.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Among the many events on Capitol Hill today, the debate over the Trump administration's so-called zero tolerance immigration policy came to a head, as lawmakers questioned officials on the separation of children from their families at the border.

    Amna Nawaz has the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    With the gavel now in their hands, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee grilled government officials from multiple agencies on the Trump administration's family separation policy, Democrats repeatedly decrying the policy as inhumane and un-American.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.:

    Deliberate separation of families is immoral and is not justified and cannot be justified by good or bad policies, good or bad intentions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Committee Republicans, like Arizona's Andy Biggs, lamented separating families, but insisted something must be done to address what he called a crisis at the border.

  • Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.:

    Our policies don't provide deterrent. They actually provide incentives to come into this country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the panel of witnesses from the many agencies behind the so-called zero tolerance policy of spring 2018 faced some tough questions seeking accountability.

    Commander Jonathan White of HHS repeated previous testimony that he'd warned senior officials of the potential harm before the policy was in place.

  • Jonathan White:

    Best available evidence is that separation of children from parents entails very significant and potentially lifelong risk of psychological and physical harm.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The former head of the agency caring for migrant children, Scott Lloyd, was asked about those warnings.

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.:

    When Commander White, as a child welfare expert, warned you about the cruel consequences of family separation, were you concerned?

  • Scott Lloyd:

    I accepted what he told me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But when pressed by Democrat Sylvia Garcia, Lloyd and officials from Justice, ICE, and Border Patrol said they never voiced concerns in any other meetings.

  • James McHenry:

    Did I? No.

  • Scott Lloyd:

    I didn't say anything along those lines.

  • Nathalie Asher:

    I didn't voice in that exact term, no. Many of my officers are parents as well. And, of course, it's a difficult…

  • Carla Provost:

    This is a difficult situation. And it is for any law enforcement professional. But, as law enforcement professionals, it's our job to enforce law. I see the policy as designed to deliver a consequence for violating the law.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Lloyd, who has since left his post for another HHS role, also denied reports he stood in the way of reunification efforts.

  • Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo.:

    Lloyd directed his staff to stop keeping a spreadsheet tracking separated families. Is that true?

  • Scott Lloyd:

    No, it is not.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The biggest question that remained unanswered, just how many children were actually separated?

  • Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas:

    You do not know how many children were separated beginning with the time that the policy was implemented in El Paso in July 2017 and when the policy was officially announced in April 2017; is that correct?

  • Carla Provost:

    I don't have that number with me. It is a number that I can get.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A number Democrats will continue to pursue, along with other questions about the policy. The House Oversight Committee today ordered subpoenas for Attorney General William Barr, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for further answers over the policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Amna joins me now.

    You were following this hearing all day long. So, a long time coming. Democrats with a lot of questions. They're looking for accountability. What stood out to you?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Listen, the number one headline to me, Judy, was confirmation from Border Patrol that family separations continue, and not just where we'd expect them, if there is a danger to the child or a violent criminal history of the parent, also just if the parent is illegally reentering.

    The first time you illegally enter, it's a misdemeanor. The second time, it's a felon — a felony, rather. So that is still happening. And we have heard anecdotes about that, heard that from our sources. It's confirmation from Border Patrol.

    Also striking to me, though, is how many of those key questions weren't answered today. There were hours of questions, multiple repeated questions to those officials. We still don't know who conceived of the policy. We still have no idea why it was implemented in the chaotic and messy way it was. And we still don't know how many kids were affected.

    It's a stunning thing, because, for the last year, we have been trying to figure out answers to those questions. Chairman Nadler actually said, you guys have not been forthcoming with the documents. We know DOJ and DHS only submitted documents to the committee last night, so still a ton of questions remain about the policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But there were, as you pointed out, Amna, a number of agencies, almost half-a-dozen agencies, represented.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What questions did they answer?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, we got some numbers. HHS officials, in particular Commander White, had a lot of information. He's the child welfare expert.

    And we know there's been an ongoing effort to reunite some of the separated families. So, let's take a look at the numbers we do know. We want to stick to the facts here.

    We know the government identified 2,816 separated children under zero tolerance. They say they have reunited with the parents that the kid was separated from 2,155. Another 580 have been placed with family sponsors; 76 of those children are still in government custody. They can't be reunited because it would be unsafe to do so.

    And five children in their custody, they still haven't reunited, they said they're working to figure out if they can. But, Judy, keep in mind this is at least 10 months those kids have now been in government custody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were telling us, Amna, there was a particularly troubling part of the hearing, line of questioning from Ted Deutch, the congressman from Florida, saying there are HHS documents that indicate a number of these children were sexually abused.

    What is known about the validity of that?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

    And his line of questioning there got a lot of attention on social media too. He shared the documents with us and we went through them. What they do outline is a disturbing number of allegations over the four years from 2015, '16, '17 and '18, almost 1,000 allegations each year of sexual abuse or assault or misconduct, many of them against the staff.

    We know there's reason to be concerned. We have had reporting in the past — even here on the show — where there have been a handful of staff at shelters who mis — abuse their power and who did sexually assault or act inappropriately with children.

    We know those are a handful of cases. And Commander White there also said, every allegation is investigated. Every single thing we have looked into shows us most of those claims are unfounded.

    The bigger question in all of this today, though, is all the things we still don't know at the end of this day. What's the government doing to try to figure out how many kids? Nothing, unless it looks like people are asking them for answers. How are border official deciding who to separate? We haven't seen any written policy or guidelines.

    And at the end of the day, what we know from all the new information we get, the administration decided to put an immigration agenda ahead of the well-being of the children.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's a disturbing set of questions and answers, and I know the answers to the questions are going to keep coming.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    They will, indeed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amna Nawaz, thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks, Judy.

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