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Washington (AFP) - US lawmakers assailed the Trump administration Tuesday for its controversial border policy, as one immigration enforcement official pushed back against charges of abuse to say that family detention centers are like a "summer camp."
The description was the latest disconnect between officials charged with carrying out a controversial "zero tolerance" policy that has led to the separation of thousands of children from their migrant parents, and outraged lawmakers and members of the public who accuse President Donald Trump of creating a child safety crisis.
Republicans and Democrats grilled immigration and border enforcement officials at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing over a series of decisions in recent months that led to the separation of more than 2,500 undocumented migrant children from their parents or guardians.
And while they warned that many young children in US custody have suffered abuse during their detention, Matthew Albence, an executive associate director at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified that conditions at family residential centers were not as bad as described.
"I think the best way to describe them is to be more like a summer camp," Albence told the panel, as he described "24/7" access to fresh food and water, educational classes, outdoor recreational opportunities and exercise.
Authorities have struggled to reunify families who were separated after being arrested for illegally crossing the border from Mexico.
The detention of separated children, including infants, in cage-like enclosures set off a global outcry, and Trump last month ordered an end to the separations.
Under a court order, the government has reunited some 1,800 migrant children with their parents.
But 711 children remain in custody, and Senate Democrat Dianne Feinstein warned they may never be reunited with parents.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that the policies of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions may essentially orphan hundreds of immigrant children," she said, blasting the policy as "deeply immoral and haphazard."
The panel's Republican chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley, also offered harsh words, saying the government "is failing miserably" at providing humane treatment.
"Mothers have suffered unimaginable physical, mental and emotional and even sexual abuse while in federal custody," Grassley said. "Obviously that's unacceptable."
Lawmakers and activists have also focused on some 400 children who remain in detention because their parents were deported.
While Grassley and others worried that deportees may not have made informed choices about leaving their children behind, the administration said the departing parents did exactly that.
"A great many of these individuals do not wish to have their child return home with them," because their goal "in the first place is to get their children to the United States," Albence said.
The hearing follows a federal judge's order to remove many migrant children from a Texas detention center after a lawsuit accused the facility of placing children on psychotropic drugs that acted as "chemical straight-jackets" to control children rather than treat actual health needs.