WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) today wrote to Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Alex Azar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to press for more information about the Administration’s policy that separates asylum-seeking parents from their children at the U.S. border. Though the law does not require the U.S. government to separate immigrants from their children, a policy put in place by the Trump Administration in April has resulted in 2,000 children being separated from their parents by DHS officials at the border. These children “rendered unaccompanied” by forcible separation from their parents are remanded by DHS officials to HHS for care in temporary detention centers, placement with foster care, or return to their families or legal guardians.
Today’s letter comes one day after Sec. Nielsen offered several falsehoods and incomplete answers to questions regarding the Administration’s family separation policy at a White House press briefing. Sens. Warner and Kaine today requested an immediate response to the following questions:
- Rationale for the Policy: Secretary Nielsen stated yesterday that the policy was not implemented in order to “send a message” and serve as a deterrent to future immigration. But later that evening, Attorney General Sessions was quoted as saying, “Hopefully people will get the message…and not break across the border unlawfully.” In addition, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly stated just last month that “the name of the game is deterrence.” Can you please clarify your understanding of the rationale behind the “Zero-Tolerance Policy” as it relates to the separation of young children from the parents at the border? Can you state unequivocally that the policy is not in place to serve as a deterrent to future immigration?
- Plan for Infrastructure: Since the announcement of the “Zero-Tolerance Policy,” how much money have DHS and HHS spent on construction of temporary facilities and associated infrastructure to house the children currently being held separate from their parents? Does a funding plan exist for the additional infrastructure necessary to house asylum seekers if the current policy continues? Are there plans to use facilities in Virginia? If so, what assurances can you provide that all facilities will be adequately equipped to provide a safe and healthy environment, including all resources necessary for the health and wellbeing (including mental and emotional) of separated children?
- Resources for Separated Children: What specific resources are available to children to deal with psychological trauma of being separated from their parents? How, where and by whom are these services being provided? How much does the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) spend to contract for medical and mental health care for children in ORR shelters, and how much does ORR intend to spend to provide these services to separated children? Please describe the mental health services ORR is providing or contracting to provide to separated children. Can ORR share medical records or information about mental health needs of children with DHS? What training do CBP officers receive to prepare them for interacting with traumatized children because they have been separated from their parents? What training do ORR shelters receive or provide to their staff to prepare them for interacting with traumatized children because they have been separated from their parents?
- Conditions for Girls and Toddlers: Video footage shows the holding conditions for boys. However, there is no similar evidence showing the conditions in which girls and younger children are currently being held. Can you release additional information and video footage that provides background on the health and wellbeing of girls and toddlers who are in the care of either DHS or HHS, including the conditions of their facilities?
- Reunification: There appears to be some conflict in how families are being reunited. DOJ has mentioned that the government does not reunite families once HHS takes custody of a child. However, DHS has claimed that once parents have served their criminal sentences, they can be reunited while they pursue their asylum claim. Are families being reunited? If so, how and when? What is the specific process which parents follow to allow for reunification with their separated children? What data does DHS have to indicate the percentage of parents who are indeed reunified with their children in a timely manner?
As the Senators noted in today’s letter, “The President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, representing 66,000 primary care pediatricians, stated that the policy and resulting trauma can cause ‘irreparable harm’ and ‘carry lifelong consequences’ for children. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called the family separation policy ‘unconscionable’ and an ‘abuse.’ The General Secretary of the United Methodist Church has also stated that the policies are not consistent with Christian teaching and ‘a shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel.’ Members of Congress from all sides of the political spectrum, former U.S. Attorneys, and countless others have all also condemned the Administration’s new policy.”
A copy of the Warner-Kaine letter is available here.
Earlier this month, Sens. Warner and Kaine introduced legislation that promotes family unity by prohibiting DHS officials from separating children from their parents, except in extraordinary circumstances. In addition, the Senators have written to President Trump, urging an end to the policy of separating children from their families at the southern border.