WASHINGTON (AP) - The number of migrant children in custody after being separated from their parents barely dropped since last week, even as Trump administration said it's doing everything possible to expedite family reunification.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told senators at a hearing Tuesday that his agency currently has 2,047 migrant children - or six fewer than the total HHS count last week.
Confusion reigned, with officials later telling reporters on a conference call they couldn't provide complete numbers because they are focused on reuniting families.
Finance Committee Democrats told Azar it doesn't seem like much progress is being made on reuniting families, even after President Donald Trump scaled back his "zero tolerance" policy on the southwest border.
"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 Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Azar suggested at one point that parents share the blame.
"It's not a desirable situation to have children separated from their parents," he said. "Listen, to be upfront, if the parents didn't bring them across illegally this would never happen."
Many parents have trekked north from Central America fleeing rampant violence in their countries, saying they fear for their lives and their children's lives, and claiming asylum under U.S. laws and policies.
The current total of 2,047 in HHS shelters compares to the 2,053 the agency reported as of Wednesday of last week.
Azar didn't say whether additional children had been transferred to HHS in the meantime. For years the department has housed unaccompanied minors who cross the border, but handling large numbers of separated kids presents new challenges.
It's still unclear how many children who were separated from their parents have been in government custody. That's partly because Customs and Border Protections can also hold children for brief periods.
Azar carefully avoided specific reunification timetables and goals.
"So what is the plan?" asked Florida Democrat Bill Nelson.
Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, defended Azar: "You've clearly been saddled with some really tough problems, and I have confidence you'll handle them expeditiously and well."
Azar said he's hampered by a court order 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 easily get around that barrier by temporarily releasing the parents while their asylum cases are being decided by immigration authorities.
In interviews, some lawyers and advocates for the migrants have complained that the reunification process appears plodding and overly complicated. Among the issues:
- Telephone numbers provided for parents to contact their separated children aren't answered. Lawyer Mario Williams of Nexus Derechos Humanos Attorneys in Atlanta said he and one of his clients experienced continual frustration trying to get through. "There was no communication," he said.
Azar told senators that "every parent has access to know where their child is" and could communicate with them by phone or through Skype, if it's available. Immigration officials have posted notices in all facilities advising detained parents who are trying to find their children to call a toll-free hotline. Calls are supposed to happen at least twice a week.
- Using the government's database to match children and parents can be hit-and-miss. Seattle lawyer Janet Gwilym with Kids in Need of Defense says one of her improvised techniques is to enter the alien number for a parent or child and then enter another number with the last digit slightly higher or lower.
"I've heard of other legal practitioners having a hard time connecting," she said.
HHS officials say they know where every child is and are working to link kids and parents.
- HHS is requiring parents to complete extensive paperwork to have their children sent back. Williams, the Atlanta lawyer, said his client was asked to provide a fresh set of fingerprints. The lawyer refused to do that, since immigration authorities already had the mother's prints. The child was released anyway, Williams said.
Azar said careful vetting is needed because sometimes traffickers pose as parents.
A fact sheet released by HHS late Saturday said Customs and Border Protection had reunited 522 children in its custody with their parents. Those children don't appear to have been turned over to HHS.
Azar said the number in HHS custody had gone as high as 2,300.
The health secretary echoed Trump's calls on Congress to change the law so that immigration authorities are no longer barred from holding children together with their parents for more than 20 days.
Asked about the age of children in HHS custody, Azar said, "We have infants in our care." But 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.