Trump Officials Face Questioning From Lawmakers On Family Separation Policy

Jul 31, 2018
Originally published on August 1, 2018 12:51 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Trump administration has faced scorching criticism in recent weeks for its treatment of migrant families both for separating children from their parents at the border and for conditions in the detention facilities where children are held. The administration continues to defend itself.

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MATTHEW ALBENCE: We have officers in these facilities on a daily basis. I think the best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp.

CORNISH: That was Matthew Albence, a top official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testifying today before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, administration officials mostly deny doing anything wrong despite bipartisan criticism.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Five officials from the Trump administration sat facing the committee from different agencies that had a hand in separating families. Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island went down the line, asking them all the same question.

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SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: What went wrong?

CARLA PROVOST: Sir, it's our responsibility in CBP to make the apprehensions and turn subjects over to our partners at ICE and/or HHS.

WHITEHOUSE: So as far as you're concerned, nothing went wrong.

ROSE: U.S. Customs and Border Protection chief Carla Provost said her agency was simply enforcing the law. Officials from ICE and the Justice Department didn't cite any mistakes either. That frustrated Democrats on Capitol Hill today. Here's Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. He called for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to step down over her role in carrying out the policy.

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DICK DURBIN: The family separation policy is more than a bureaucratic lapse in judgment. It is and was a cruel policy inconsistent with the bedrock values of this nation. Someone - someone - in this administration has to accept responsibility.

ROSE: But Nielsen shows no signs of quitting. She was hundreds of miles away today at a cybersecurity conference in New York City. The Trump administration stopped separating migrant families more than a month ago. Then a federal judge in California ordered the administration to reunite more than 2,500 children who were separated from their parents. On Capitol Hill today, the administration said 559 children are still in the government's care, including more than 400 whose parents were deported without their children. Immigration officials say those parents agreed to be deported, but immigrant rights advocates believe many were coerced into signing papers they didn't understand.

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CHARLES GRASSLEY: We ought to be disturbed. And I'm disturbed by these allegations.

ROSE: That's Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa, a Republican. He understands why the Trump administration took a zero tolerance stance against illegal border crossers.

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GRASSLEY: However, like many well-intentioned policies, there were unintended consequences.

ROSE: The consequences were that parents were separated from their children when they were sent to federal detention and the kids went to shelters. The solution, according to Republicans - they say Congress should change the law so that immigrant families can be detained together. Republicans and the Trump administration also denied reports that migrant children and families are being mistreated. Senator John Cornyn of Texas says he's toured some shelters near the border.

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JOHN CORNYN: And I found that these facilities were well-managed with caseworkers, mental health professionals and teachers, 24/7 access to fresh food and water.

ROSE: Immigrant rights advocates say those facilities may look like a summer camp when members of Congress and the media are invited in, but they are not places you'd want to send your kids. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.