HHS still has over 2K migrant children in custody

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Associated Press

Washington – Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday that his department still has custody of 2,047 migrant children who were separated from their parents because of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the southwest border.

That’s only six fewer children than the 2,053 HHS had said were in its custody as of Wednesday of last week. Azar didn’t say whether additional children had been transferred to HHS since last week.

Still, Democratic senators questioning the health chief during a Finance Committee hearing said that’s nowhere near enough progress.

“HHS, Homeland Security, and the Justice Department seem to be doing a lot more to add to the bedlam and deflect blame than they’re doing to tell parents where their kids are,” said Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.

Azar said he’s hampered by a federal law that says children can’t be held longer than 20 days with parents detained by immigration authorities. However, lawyers for the migrants say the administration can get around that barrier by temporarily releasing the parents while their asylum cases are being decided by immigration authorities.

A fact sheet released by HHS late Saturday said Customs and Border Protection had reunited 522 children in its custody with their parents. However, it’s not clear if that refers to another group of children, those who had not been turned over to health officials for shelter.

Wyden pressed Azar repeatedly on how many parents actually know where their children are.

Azar responded that “every parent has access to know where their child is” and that could communicate with them by phone or through Skype, if it’s available.

ICE officials have posted notices in all its facilities advising detained parents who are trying to find their children to call a toll-free hotline. But there have been reports from the field that parents have had trouble getting the information they need.

Azar refused to be pinned down on how long it would take to reunite families that were separated at the border. “We have to expeditiously get children out of our care,” he said.

He echoed President Donald Trump’s calls on Congress to change the law that prevents children from being held longer than 20 days.

Asked about the age of children in HHS custody, Azar said, “We have infants in our care.” But he said that’s not just as a result of Trump’s now-suspended “zero tolerance” policy.

“As shocking as it sounds, we have always had infants at our care,” he said, adding that babies are sometimes found abandoned at the border.