Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker admitted in his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Friday that the Department of Justice (DOJ), of which he is temporarily in charge, did not keep track of children separated from their families at the border with Mexico. His answer prompted a fiery rebuke from Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal.
“When parents are prosecuted and sentenced, they are in DOJ custody, correct?” Jayapal asked Whitaker.
“Correct, their custody is transferred to the U.S. Marshals,” Whitaker replied.
“So these parents are in your custody, your attorneys are prosecuting them, and your department was not tracking parents who were separated from their children?” Jayapal said. “Do you know what kind of damage has been done to the children and families across this country, children who will never get to see their parents again.
“Do you understand the magnitude of that?” Jayapal said, growing angered by his revelation.
“I understand that the policy of zero tolerance…” Whitaker said, before Jayapal cut him off.
“Has the Justice Department started tracking parents and legal guardians who were separated from their children at the border?” the congresswoman asked.
Whitaker said, “I appreciate your passion.”
“This is about more than my passion,” Jayapal fired back. “This is about the children’s future, Mr. Whitaker. Please answer. Go ahead.”
Whitaker explained: “The responsibility for the arrest, the detention and together with the custody of the children, was handled by DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] before those people were ever transferred to DOJ custody, to the U.S. Marshals.”
According to a declaration filed last week as part of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officials from the Trump administration complained it would require too much effort to reunite the thousands of families it separated before implementing its “zero-tolerance” policy in April.
In the declaration, Health and Human Services (HHS) officials did not refute a report issued by the HHS inspector general last month which found that “thousands” more immigrant families had been separated than the government had previously disclosed. HHS said they have no idea what the exact number of children who were taken from their parents before “zero tolerance” and claimed that locating them would be too much of a “burden” since there was no formal tracking system in place.
Jallyn Sualog, the deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said that, “In my judgment, ORR does not have the requisite staff for such a project,” indicating that it would take 100 analysis from the ORR without full eight-hour days somewhere between 7-15 months to “even begin reconciling” the requisite data.
“The Trump administration’s response is a shocking concession that it can’t easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents and doesn’t even think it’s worth the time to locate each of them,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead lawyer in the ACLU’s ongoing lawsuit against ICE, in a statement. “The administration also doesn’t dispute that separations are ongoing in significant numbers.”
Immigration advocates are dismayed by the fact that the government did not bother to properly track separated families when they instituded the “zero tolerance” policy.
“They are saying they just don’t care,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It’s shocking from a human rights perspective for a government to behave this way.”
“Your attorneys are prosecuting them, and your Department was not tracking parents who were separated from their children?" Rep. Pramila Jayapal asks Whitaker.
"Do you know what kind of damage has been done to children and families…Do you understand the magnitude of that?" pic.twitter.com/CPQB6pEOW3
— ABC News (@ABC) February 8, 2019