On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on family separations, during which the lack of any accountability for the disastrous policy became abundantly clear. Not a single member of the panel was willing to defend the policy, but only one was willing to state plainly what went wrong.
More than 2,500 children were separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” enforcement program for undocumented border crossings and related practices. The separations were halted last month by a federal judge who ordered that separated families be reunified. As of last week’s reunification deadline, several hundred children had still not been reunified with their parents. The government, meanwhile, was unable to locate the parents of more than 400 children who were unlawfully separated. Many of those parents have been deported, and it is feared that some may never see their children again.
During Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s questioning, he asked every member of the panel a simple question: “What went wrong?”
This portion of the hearing offered one of the most dramatic examples of government abdication of responsibility it’s possible to imagine.
Going one by one, nearly all of the panelists were unable to come up with a single thing that the government had done wrong.
Customs and Border Protection U.S. Border Patrol Acting Chief Carla Provost simply stated that her department’s job was to apprehend undocumented border crossers. “So as far as you’re concerned, nothing went wrong,” Whitehouse asked.* “I’m not saying that,” Provost said. She did not, though, articulate what might have gone wrong.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Matthew Albence responded that standard practices were in place and that those had been followed. He did not say what went wrong.
Executive Office for Immigration Review Director James McHenry III and ICE Services Associate Director of Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations Jennifer Higgins deferred to the responses of their colleagues on the panel, another way of not answering the question.
Prior to McHenry and Higgins speaking, one person on the panel was willing to plainly state what went wrong. The answer was very simple.
“What went wrong is that children were separated from their parents and referred as unaccompanied alien children when in fact they were accompanied,” said Cmdr. Jonathan White, the nonpartisan official who has been in charge of the government’s reunification effort.
Put even more simply, there was never any plan for reuniting children with their parents. This is also what Judge Dana Sabraw deemed to be the constitutional violation that caused him to rule against the policy in federal court. White also noted that without the judge’s orders, there would have been no ability in place to reunite families.
“We were able to effect the reunification of a large number of minors with their parents in ICE detention … because the judge ordered us to not follow the [standard protocol],” White said. “We could not have done that without him ordering us to do that. We would have been prevented by statute.”
White’s colleagues seemed to at least acknowledge that something did in fact go wrong with the policy, which caused a massive public backlash once the horrific details of the practice began to emerge.
During Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s questioning, he asked the panel to raise their hands if they thought the “zero tolerance” enforcement policy and family separation had been a success.
Nobody on the panel raised their hands.
Critics might dismiss the approach as theater, but it is actually the crucial remaining question: Who was responsible for this calamity?
“Who here can tell me who is responsible, which public official, which member of this administration is responsible for ‘zero tolerance’ and family separation,” Blumenthal asked. “Can anyone tell me? Who’s responsible? Nobody knows?”
After 15 seconds without a response from any panelist, Albence acknowledged that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the official who issued the “zero tolerance” policy on April 6. (Variations of that policy and family separation practices had reportedly been piloted for months before that.) As Blumenthal noted, though, that order would have presumably been done with the approval of President Donald Trump.
For his part, Trump has been a firm defender of the policy, despite being forced to back down from it by public pressure and the courts. Even this weekend, Trump tweeted “there are consequences when people cross our Border illegally, whether they have children or not - and many are just using children for their own sinister purposes.”
If there were any justice, both the president and the attorney general would be made to state their case for this brutal and horrific policy under their own public questioning.
Correction, July 31, 2018: This post originally misattributed this quote to Sen. Blumenthal.