WASHINGTON (CN) – Had they known that the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy would involve separating families, a high-ranking government official told lawmakers Thursday that neither he, nor anyone he knew at other federal agencies, would have endorsed it.
U.S. Public Health Service Commander Jonathan White made the admission this morning during a House oversight subcommittee hearing where lawmakers met to discuss the findings revealed in a January report by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The report found that thousands more immigrant children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border than the initial 2,737 separations first reported by the government.
In light of the trauma caused to children separated from their parents, Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., asked White pointedly: “Would you have advised Health and Human Services to implement a zero-tolerance policy?”
“Neither I nor my agency would have ever recommended this,” White said.
Thursday’s hearing comes more than a year since the zero-tolerance policy was first put into effect, and lawmakers volleyed hours of questions for White and other witnesses about the glaring operational inadequacies discovered across numerous federal offices since the separations first began.
Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, told White that the lack of communication between HHS and the departments that carried out the family separations was “not only cruel but incompetent.”
Pressed on the failure of HHS to recommend ending separations in light of the impact to children’s health, White told lawmakers that the Office of Refugee Resettlement found itself suddenly inundated with thousands of children and no place to accommodate them.
“We only became aware of the formal policy when [then] Attorney General Jeff Sessions said it on television on April 6,” White said.
White said he did share his concerns with superiors about the ability of the Office of Refugee Resettlement to handle the sudden influx.
“I expressed concern that the policy would be inconsistent with our legal requirement to act in the best interest of the child and would expose children to unnecessary risk of harm,” White said. “It would also exceed the capacity of the program – issues of bed capacity are very important because it constitutes our ability to provide a safe environment for every child.”
White testified that he brought concerns to superiors Lynn Johnson, secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, as well as the administration’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Steven Wagner and Maggie Wynne, the counselor for human services at HHS.
As Homeland Security and the Justice Department undertook the family separations, White said he was uncertain if HHS Secretary Alex Azar formally conveyed his agency’s concern for children’s wellbeing.
“I am not aware [of any attempts],” White said.
Azar was invited to attend Thursday’s hearing but declined.
A representative for the secretary said in an email meanwhile that Azar plans on attending a future hearing regarding the administration’s 2020 budget requests.
“Secretary Azar understands and appreciates the important role of congressional oversight ... he looks forward to answering questions members may have about HHS programs, including those related to the [Office of Refugee Resettlement] program,” the representative said.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., underscored the toll of the policy Thursday.
“Does anyone actually know how many children have been separated?” She asked. “Nobody knows. This is state-sponsored child abuse and I would go as far as to say this is kidnapping children.”
Schakowsky pressed White as well about why the Office of Refugee Resettlement was unable to determine the parentage of separated children.
“Why is this ID process so difficult,” she asked. “It’s not rocket science. What about an ID bracelet? Like a medical bracelet? One for the parent and one for the child?”
White said the office worked tirelessly to identify children but that they started the process at an immediate disadvantage because the department never received any list or manifest from Homeland Security.
Another Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, pressed White for his department’s position on the long-term health effects the separations have on children.
“Do you feel children were retraumatized by being separated from their parents,” Ruiz asked. “Was this additional trauma to a child after they experienced difficulty in their home country and then going through the trek to get here – did we, [the United States] add trauma?”
“For many, that is a consequence, yes,” White said.
Jack Shonkoff, a professor of pediatrics from Harvard University, also testified Thursday, telling lawmakers that forced separations would exacerbate “toxic stress” in children who were already under duress.
“It’s excessive stress activation — that’s what happens to the physiology of that child when it’s left alone without being held or coddled,” Shonkoff said. “The misconception is that that none of us remember things at that age, and babies don’t understand what’s going on.
“It may not be a conscious memory but the body doesn’t forget,” he said.
Statistically, children subjected to family separation are also at greater risk of problems later in life like a proclivity to violence or an inability to relate intimately. The rate of developing diseases like diabetes also increases, Shonkoff said.
Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., also expressed concern Thursday about the psychological impact separations have on young children.
During a visit to the border, Kuster recounted meeting a woman who shared her story of separation at the border.
“Women were told they had to go to a court hearing [to determine their immigration status] but that the children couldn’t come with them,” Kuster said. “The children were taken while they were in the courtroom.”
Kuster described another woman separated from her child for months who couldn’t get her child to speak to her on the phone when they finally had a chance to reconnect.
“She wouldn’t come to the phone because she was told by [Customs and Border Protection officers] that her mother didn’t want her,” Kuster said.
Though Azar was absent during testimony, the secretary has held regular conference calls with lawmakers, including those on the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, and has attended several briefings with members of Congress.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.