WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials hosted a conference call Tuesday to discuss efforts to reunite parents and children separated as a result of the president’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. According to the officials, these reunifications are a top priority in the wake of the executive order Trump signed last week to “address” the separations, but they refused to answer repeated questions about whether young migrants are still being taken from their parents after illegally crossing the U.S. border.
Trump’s zero tolerance policy, which was enacted early last month, called for all illegal border crossings to be prosecuted as crimes. This resulted in parents being separated from their children during legal proceedings. Following a nationwide outcry, Trump signed an executive order on June 20 that directed the Department of Homeland Security to “maintain custody of alien families” to the “extent permitted by law” when resources are available.
Trump’s executive order did not change the situation for the children who had already been separated from their parents and were being held at detention centers run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Tuesday’s conference call featured officials from HHS who said that, as of June 25, there were 2,407 children in the agency’s custody “as a result of having been separated from their parents as a consequence of their parents being prosecuted under the zero tolerance policy.”
Lisa Desjardins, a reporter with PBS NewsHour, asked whether HHS is “still receiving children who are coming into your care because of parental detention” due to an “implementation phase on the executive order.”
“We can get you that information as soon as possible and we appreciate your patience,” HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Judy Stecker said before attempting to move on.
“Actually, it’s really important,” said Desjardins. “Excuse me. Are you still receiving children who are there because of the parental separation policy?”
“I believe we’ve answered,” Stecker replied.
“I didn’t hear an answer,” Desjardins said.
Stecker then called for a “final question” and someone could be heard on the line expressing shock at Stecker’s refusal to offer specifics.
“Oh my god,” the person said.
Before taking questions from reporters, Stecker and the other officials on the call addressed the agency’s “unaccompanied alien children” program. Overall, they said HHS is currently holding approximately 11,800 migrant children who attempted to cross the border illegally. About 9,700 of the young migrants in the agency’s custody are “traditional unaccompanied children … who were unaccompanied by a parent or a legal guardian at the time that they were found by the U.S. government,” said Jonathan White, deputy director for Children’s Programs for the office of refugee resettlement, who works with HHS.
While there have been concerns about the conditions the young migrants are being held in, White said they “receive education … health care, mental health and counseling resources.”
“It will look very like a child welfare group home or residential setting that you would see for American children,” said White.
HHS works to reunite children with their parents, a close relative, or a designated friend of the family, White added, noting that the sponsors are vetted by the agency. While in custody, it is HHS policy to give the children “access to … at least two … phone calls per week with their families,” White said, adding that HHS is “working with ICE” to ensure that parents who are being detained by immigration officials can have these calls with their children.
In the six days since Trump signed his executive order, officials have declined to answer many questions about the young migrants who have been separated from their parents, including when they will be reunited, how this will happen, and even how many of these children were currently in custody. On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders walked out of her press briefing without answering as Yahoo News attempted to ask her how many children were still being held who had been taken from their parents. Concerns have arisen that the government has lost track of some of the children in its custody.
On the conference call, White insisted, “We have always known where all the children are.”
Still, reporters’ confusion and frustration with the lack of details was evident on Tuesday’s call.
Officials only took three questions, and the first came from a reporter who asked them to “help us understand why it’s difficult to provide a number right now for the total number of kids” who were separated from their parents and placed into the care of HHS.
“The issue is that we are prioritizing our effort now on the reunification of the children we have now,” said White.
Another reporter asked if the 522 young migrants that the government said it had reunited with parents were ever in the care of HHS. An official confirmed those children “never came into” the agency’s custody.
Stecker, the HHS spokesperson, then asked reporters who had further questions or wanted “specific numbers” to reach out to the agency via email. Despite this encouragement, HHS has not responded to a request from Yahoo News asking whether it is still taking in children who have been separated from their parents.
The conference call operator seemed to have been prepared for the officials to take more than three questions.
“You ready for the next question?” the operator asked Stecker.
Stecker was not.
“With that we will end the call,” she said before hanging up.
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