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Senate Democrats Slam Trump Officials Over Family Separations

Durbin called on the Homeland Security secretary to resign

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., cites a tweet by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Hart Building on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., cites a tweet by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Hart Building on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats on Tuesday criticized the Trump administration’s efforts to reunify hundreds of undocumented migrant children who remain separated from their parents as a result of the president’s zero-tolerance border security policy — including many whose parents have already been deported.

Officials from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services told the Senate Judiciary Committee that their court-ordered work to reunify separated families is unfinished. 

But Democrats who have expressed outrage over the policy weren’t satisfied, probing the officials to explain why steps were not taken to plan for the reunification process before the separations took place.

“There were some very basic ways that we could have kept track of the children and their parents in this age of, not only computers, but plastic bracelets,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. 

Watch: Protesters Walk Out on Immigration Hearing

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Durbin used the hearing to call on Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Secretary, to resign over the separations.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., expressed disbelief that the government could not come up with an easy way to keep track of where children and their parents were being sent.

“Chuck-E-Cheese does things like this,” said Leahy, referencing a poster of a plastic bracelet that a staffer held aloft behind him.

Jonathan D. White, the HHS official leading the administration’s reunification effort, said that children who cannot be returned to their parents will likely be released from custody to a close relative or another sponsor. One major hurdle is that the tracking system being used for reunification was designed primarily for unaccompanied immigrant children and is not able to track the whereabouts of the parent.

“We know our work is not over,” White said.

Released without children

Around 700 children remain separated from their parents as of last week and are considered “ineligible” for reunification by the administration, in most cases because their parents were deported or released into the United States and are no longer being tracked, or because the parent waived their right to reunification. Some were not reunified due to the parent having a criminal record.

The administration officials at the hearing did not explain why children were not reunited with parents who were being deported or released.

The policy resulted in the separation of around 2,600 children from their parents between April and June before President Donald Trump — under pressure from Democrats and Republicans — signed an executive order ending the practice. Around 1,500 children were returned to their parents by a court-ordered deadline last Thursday.

The hearing featured a discussion of the proposals put forth by lawmakers from both parties aimed at addressing the treatment of unaccompanied families at the border. Republicans want to pass legislation by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., that would allow families to be detained together for the duration of their immigration proceedings, but Democrats say that would allow for indefinite detention, which they oppose.

Next steps

Democrats favor legislation  by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, which would make it illegal for the government to separate a child and parent unless authorities have concerns that the child is being trafficked or abused. Republicans opposed to the bill say that it would codify  “catch and release” and cause more illegal immigration.

The hearing came a day after Feinstein and Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, asked the DHS and HHS inspectors general to investigate allegations of abuse in immigrant detention centers dating back to 2014 or earlier. In his opening statement, Grassley said the allegations, if true, would mean the government is “failing miserably” to treat migrants humanely regardless of their legal status. 

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