WASHINGTON (CN) – Senators on Tuesday voiced their frustrations with the Trump administration’s efforts to reunite families separated at the border, even as administration officials insisted they are working to resolve the situation that has consumed Washington for months.
“Your testimony today has made pretty clear to me that the government had no plan to reunite the separated children from their parents,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said at Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
For more than three hours on Tuesday, lawmakers grilled officials from federal immigration agencies on how the government is working to reunify families who were separated at the border as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.
Lawmakers were frustrated with the officials’ inability to provide specific statistics and with the seeming lack of coordination between the immigration enforcement agencies before the administration announced its new hard-line stance on people who cross the border illegally.
Several senators specifically questioned how the administration kept track of which people belong to which family.
“It’s almost Kafka,” Sen. Pat Leahy , D-Vt., said. “So you pick them up, they’re removed from their parents, but there has to be some kind of a system to ensure that children can be matched to their parents, doesn’t there?”
Cmdr. Jonathan White, who is working on the family reunification effort for the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, told Leahy the federal government still does not know where the parents of some of children in its custody are, especially if the parents were already deported.
The Trump administration officials largely defended their efforts to reunite families, telling lawmakers they are working hard to comply with a tangle of administration policy, consent decrees and court-imposed deadlines that have stretched the agencies thin.
“I am saying that if I could have reunited these children with their parents by yesterday, it would be done,” White said.
Matthew Albence, the executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, drew the ire of some lawmakers when he compared the detention centers to summer camps.
The officials pointed to a number of factors to explain why the government last week missed a court-imposed deadline to reunite the remaining families that were separated at the border, including an “incredibly compressed” timeline that forced the agencies to perform tasks they had never before been asked to do.
“The systems were not set up to have referrals include parent information,” White said.
Albence explained the government’s efforts to reunite some children with their parents have also been complicated because ICE does not keep track of the people they have released from detention, especially if they are deported to another country.
This touched on another concern of lawmakers, who appeared skeptical of the government’s claim that some parents who were deported before being reunited with their children did so voluntarily. The government last week told a federal judge there are 431 children who could not be reunited with their parents because their parents are no longer in the country.
Albence assured lawmakers the agency took steps to ensure parents made this decision knowingly, saying those who undergo the long and dangerous journey to the United States often do so with the sole goal of getting their children into the country.
“The reason most of the individuals come here in the first place is to get their children to the United States,” Albence said.
Additionally, White noted the government has been unable to reunite some children with their parents because of red flags in the parents’ background, such as prior criminal convictions.
Albence told senators that Congress could ease the burden on the agencies by casting off a consent decree that limits how long the government can hold children in custody. He endorsed a plan that would repeal parts of the consent decree to allow minors to be held with their parents while awaiting a decision on whether they can remain in the country.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, suggested such a solution at the beginning of the hearing, calling it “the best way to ensure this crisis never happens again.”
“Although the administration has mishandled the family separations, it’s also important to remember that this institution, the Congress, also deserves its fair share of blame,” Grassley said. “For years, Congress has failed to take one simple step that could have prevented the family separations we now decry.”