WASHINGTON (CN) – In a heated confrontation with lawmakers, a chief officer for U.S. Border Patrol testified Thursday that immigrant families might have just 10 minutes to say their goodbyes before agents separate parents from their children.
The revelation incensed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler as he pressed Chief Bill Hastings on CNN’s exclusive report today that the Trump administration adopted its controversial zero-tolerance last year despite months of reports about how separating families would prove untenable.
Incident reports from the Office of Refugee Resettlement detailed in the article describe one 14-year-old who was separated from his father last May during a meal break, and another, just 11, who never saw his father again after an officer distracted him by calling him aside.
“How were agents told to implement the zero-tolerance policy,” Nadler pushed Hastings. “Were border patrol agents instructed to trick children so they could take their parents away from them when they don’t know what is happening?”
Hastings denied that any children were tricked, saying no separations occur only after agents first inform the mother or father of the charges against them and the reason for the separation. But how much time there is between that moment and the time children are physically separated from their parents isn’t regulated.
“There isn’t a minimum time,” Hastings said, before confirming it could be 10 minutes or less.
Hastings said his agency was responsible only for deportation, not reunification — which falls under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services, an agency of which the Office of Refugee Resettlement is a part.
Nadler, a New York Democrat, pushed Hastings to deny that Border Patrol is not carrying out kidnappings on a wide scale by deporting parents before a family is reunified or it is confirmed that they can be reunified.
“We’re not kidnapping. We’re following guidelines,” Hastings told the committee.
Appearing incredulous at the statement, Nadler paused before responding.
“Deporting a parent without their child is literal kidnapping,” he said.
Reports of agents hitting or kicking children also raised concerns Thursday. Though Hastings said such behavior by agents is never acceptable, he said those reports might stem from walk-through “checks” agents perform to see if children are awake – or alive – at facilities.
Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, balked meanwhile at the admission from Hastings that Customs and Border Protection will separate families based on HIV status, since the virus is considered a communicable disease.
“But do you separate mom and dad from children if they have the flu?” Raskin asked.
Hastings told the committee they were not.
Representative Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat, urged reconsideration of the policy that allows Border Patrol to separate children from anyone other than their biological parent.
She noted that grandparents, uncles, aunts or cousins may be a child’s only familial tie present after an arduous journey.
Escobar conceded that some who cross the border may lie about being blood-related to a child, but she said the solution should come down to better screening, not unnecessary separations of children from their grandmothers.
Diana Shaw, assistant inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, said Customs and Border Protection has struggled to comply with custody standards. Facing limited bed space at long-term detention Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facilities, agents are ill-equipped to deal with the influx of immigrants at the border for long periods of time. The situation, she said, was “unsustainable.”
Reports that could paint a clearer picture of what has unfolded at agencies responsible for immigration enforcement are forthcoming. Jonathan Hayes, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, told lawmakers the agency is compiling data on reports of sexual misconduct at detention facilities.
For the past several weeks, the Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General has been investigating a Border Patrol agent Facebook group called “I’m 10-15,” following a report by ProPublica about agents posting there with racist, sexist and xenophobic comments about immigrants and some Democratic lawmakers.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, a member of the group, condemned the activity during a separate hearing Wednesday.
Shaw said an investigation identifying participants in the group – and confirming whether disciplinary action occurred – will conclude in two to three months.
A representative from Customs and Border Protection did not immediately return request for comment.