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Dems Accuse Trump Admin of “State-Sponsored Child Abuse” as Separated Migrant Children Scandal Grows

StoryFebruary 08, 2019
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Trump administration officials are acknowledging that there may be thousands more missing immigrant children who were separated from their parents than originally reported. This was the focus of a hearing on Thursday of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. We speak to Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. He is the lead lawyer on the ACLU’s national challenge to the Trump administration’s family separation practice. He testified at the hearing yesterday.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we end today’s show with the ongoing crisis of family separation at the border, after officials at a congressional hearing Thursday did not dispute that there may be thousands more missing kids who were separated from their parents than originally reported. The hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was meant to investigate the role of the Department of Health and Human Services in carrying out Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, that led to the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the U.S. border. It revealed a chaotic system without adequate measures taken to track family units and that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar may not have even known about the zero-tolerance policy before it went into effect.

This is Republican Congressmember Brett Guthrie of Kentucky questioning Commander Jonathan White, formerly of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, during Thursday’s hearing.

REP. BRETT GUTHRIE: Would you have advised DOJ and—or DHS to implement the policy of zero tolerance, if they had asked?

CDR. JONATHAN WHITE: Neither I nor any career person in ORR would ever have supported such a policy proposal.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Congressmember Jan Schakowsky of Illinois also questioned Commander Jonathan White, again, formerly of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Does anyone know how many are still separated from their parents? Nobody knows. And now we know that those in ORR custody, that there is no way to know how to divide out those children that have been separated. Is that right, Commander?

CDR. JONATHAN WHITE: Ma’am, no. I want to be very clear: Children in ORR custody, children who have been in ORR custody, who were in ORR custody on the 26th of June, we have laboriously worked to identify those—

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: No, I understand. But you—

CDR. JONATHAN WHITE: Challenge is those who exited ORR custody, because HHS—


CDR. JONATHAN WHITE: —did not receive from DHS any list or any indication of the complete set of separated children.


CDR. JONATHAN WHITE: In partnership with them, we worked hard to identify every one of those kids, from those who were in care.



REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: I just feel like what’s been happening is more than irresponsible and sloppy. But I really think that what we’re talking about is state-sponsored child abuse. And I would go as far as to say kidnapping.

AMY GOODMAN: That is “state-sponsored child abuse” and “kidnapping” of children, said Democratic Congressmember Jan Schakowsky, questioning Commander Jonathan White.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, lead lawyer on the ACLU’s national challenge to the Trump administration’s family separation practice. He was there yesterday. He testified before Congress.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

LEE GELERNT: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks for flying in early this morning.

LEE GELERNT: Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: What are we talking about here? At this point, the Trump administration is admitting that there are thousands more children—they don’t even know what happened to them, but were separated from their parents?

LEE GELERNT: So, yeah, these are remarkable developments, one year into the litigation, and we’re still getting bombshells. An internal report by HHS said there may have been thousands more. They can’t put a number on it, because no one has tracked the kids. HHS, at the hearing yesterday, did not dispute that there may be thousands, but says it would take too long to try and find the children, because they’d have to go through individual files, they had no tracking system.

So, they know the kids were given to sponsors. That could mean anything from foster care to a parent to a relative to a distant relative. We want to make sure that these kids are OK and that they can get back with their parent, if that’s what the family wants. HHS is saying, “That would take too long. We don’t want to do it, absent a court order.” So we are going back to court in San Diego on February 21st to seek that court order.

AMY GOODMAN: How can thousands of children have been taken that no one has records of?

LEE GELERNT: Yeah, I mean, I wish I had an answer for you. That’s the same stunning, you know, thing that—what happened earlier, where they admitted that—they said there were 2,700 kids. They couldn’t track them. The judge said, “The government tracks property better than they track these kids.” We thought it was over with these 2,700 kids. And now it may be that there’s thousands more.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, these kinds of hearings didn’t take place before, because Democrats weren’t in power challenging the administration that was doing this—


AMY GOODMAN: —as Schakowsky said—


AMY GOODMAN: —kidnapping and abuse.


AMY GOODMAN: What did you testify yesterday?

LEE GELERNT: I said that there are a few things that are critical for Congress to try and do now. One is to create funds for these families. Because a lot of people think, “Well, if they’re reunified, that’s the end of the matter.” But the truth is, in some ways, it’s just starting. The trauma is so severe. There were medical professionals testifying with me who said that these kids may be traumatized for the rest of their life. We think Congress should allocate funds to provide medical care.

We also need standards, going forward. The other thing that HHS did not dispute yesterday at the hearing was that there are ongoing separations. And what they’re constantly doing now, they know there’s a court order so they can’t just do it willy-nilly, but what they’re saying is, “Well, this parent is dangerous; this parent is, too,” but they’re doing—they’re asserting that unilaterally, without any standards and without any ability for the parent to push back. We need Congress to set standards or the court to set standards. And, lastly, we need these thousands of kids to be found.

AMY GOODMAN: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar may not have even known about the zero-tolerance policy when it was instituted?

LEE GELERNT: Right. I mean, that’s what they testified. And so, Commander White, who was testifying for HHS, said they were not—he was not given information about it in advance. He’s not sure what other information was given. And the secretary refused to show up. And the chair of the committee also made clear that—

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary Nielsen.

LEE GELERNT: No, Secretary Azar for HHS.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary Azar.

LEE GELERNT: Right, right, right. And the other thing is, the committee chair asked for documents in advance of the hearing, to show who knew what. They didn’t provide all the documents. I think the House is going to continue to seek those documents.

But the other thing I would just say is, putting aside whether they got a memo from the attorney general, HHS knew this was happening, because there were hundreds and hundreds of young kids showing up that never would have shown up before. So, whether or not they say they were formerly told, they knew something was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, at this point we’re talking about thousands of children currently.

LEE GELERNT: Potentially, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Potentially.


AMY GOODMAN: How do you find out where they are?

LEE GELERNT: It’s going to be painstaking, but I think—lives of children are at stake—we have to do it. HHS is admitting now they have no tracking system, no integrated database, which is one of the things we’re seeking in court and will be seeking in Congress for it to be created. But they’re saying they could do it if they go through the individual files, but it’s too many hours. We say, “You have to do it.” I mean, these are children’s lives. How can you just say it’s not worth the effort?

AMY GOODMAN: So, Commander Jonathan White—


AMY GOODMAN: —said he would have never recommended family separation as a policy.


AMY GOODMAN: He talked about the trauma.


AMY GOODMAN: Another revelation was that there were no standards—there are no standards in the law for when separations should occur.


AMY GOODMAN: So, what is the legislation that has to pass now?

LEE GELERNT: You know, we have established in court now a standard that can be used. But Commander White was saying, as well, there’s no legislation setting out standards. I think it might be worthwhile for Congress to make clear, so it’s not just the court order, “These are the standards we want you to follow.” He was pointing out that Congress has never set standards. But it would be good if Congress set standards, but that’s no excuse for what happened, because child welfare law in every state has a standard. And the standard is, you leave a child with their parent unless the parent presents a danger to the child. That’s not what the Trump administration was doing. They were taking children away in a hope that it would deter asylum seekers from coming to this country. So, the fact that—

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re suggesting they’re still doing it.


AMY GOODMAN: So, do you—

LEE GELERNT: We know they’re still doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe many children right now will never be reunited with their parents? And if someone is watching this, if a young person is watching this, what do they do to say—to let someone know they’re alone, or where do they go, or how do they find their parent?

LEE GELERNT: Well, throughout this whole litigation the last year, I have never said, “I don’t believe we will get the task done.” And I’m going to stick to that. I am hopeful that we will reunite every child and parent who wants to be reunited. I think if there are relatives out there, foster care, they ought to let people know. But, ultimately, it’s too big a task for just that kind of self-help. We need the government to give us whatever information they have. And then we will start doing what we’ve been doing all year, which is calling these parents and children.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe Kirsten Gillibrand [sic] lied to Congress?

LEE GELERNT: Kirstjen Nielsen.

AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security.

LEE GELERNT: I’m not going to characterize it, but I do not feel we’ve gotten the whole truth from the administration throughout the family separation policy, and I think there’s bombshells still to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Gelernt, I want to thank you for being with us, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, lead lawyer for the ACLU’s national challenge to the Trump administration’s family separation practice.

Democracy Now! has a job opening: full-time, 1-year paid news production fellowship. Check out democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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