Trump administration officials appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday to answer questions about the government’s family separation policy. While much of the hearing was a master class in seeking to avoid blame, there was one incredibly revelatory moment.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked the panelists if any of them had warned the Trump administration of how devastating the policy of splitting up families in order to prosecute all undocumented border crossings might be. It turned out, there had in fact been a dire warning of the likely consequences for the children involved.
The policy in question, along with related practices, had resulted in the unlawful separation of more than 2,500 children from their parents when it was halted by an executive order and a federal judge last month. As of last week, several hundred of those children had not been reunited with their parents despite a court order from that judge. Apparently, more than 400 parents were deported without being given the chance to be reunited.
Commander Jonathan White is the person currently in charge of attempting to reunite the separated families, per that court ruling. White was a nonpartisan official serving as the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s deputy director for children’s programs up until a few weeks before the “zero tolerance” was launched by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April.
“Did any member of this panel say to anyone, maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” Blumenthal asked.
During the deliberative process over the previous year, we raised a number of concerns in the ORR program about any policy which would result in family separation. Due to concerns we had about the best interest of the child, as well as whether that would be operationally supportable with the bed capacity we had.
“You told the administration that kids would suffer as a result, that pain would be inflicted, correct?” Blumenthal then asked.
“Separation of children from their parents entails significant risk of harm to children,” White responded.
“It’s traumatic for any child separated from his or her parents,” Blumenthal continued.
“There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” White responded.
Blumenthal then asked White what the administration said when he warned them of likely consequences.
White, who left his previous position at ORR on March 15, said that they had advised him that no such policy was being undertaken.
Blumenthal pointed out to White that the policy was eventually launched a few weeks after this date “even though you raised concerns.”
“Yes, we raised concerns about the effect on children as well as the effect on the program,” White said. “At no time during the time that I was in ORR, was there an actual policy announcement of family separation. It was merely a discussion of possible future consequences.”
This was a stunning confirmation from White of something that had already been apparent: There was no intention by the government to reunite these families. Not only did the government not have a plan to reunite the families, though, it was apparently told that these separations were likely to traumatize the children.
The Trump administration launched the policy anyways, and the horror that it was warned about ensued.