This story has been corrected.
WASHINGTON – Immigration officials defended the integrity of their agencies’ handling of family separations at the border, with one witness telling a Senate panel Tuesday that Border Patrol agents don’t leave their “humanity behind when we report for duty.”
The comments came during a three-hour Senate Judiciary Committee hearing during which lawmakers grilled officers of five agencies over the planning of the family separation policy and the disappointing pace of reunification efforts.
“Despite the public outcry and the review by the courts, the administration has demonstrated it can’t be trusted to put the welfare of children above its own hardline views on immigration,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California. “We have a constitutional and moral obligation to intervene.”
Feinstein said the policies enacted by President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions may “orphan hundreds of immigrant children.”
But witnesses at the hearing – which was briefly disrupted when several dozen pro-immigration audience members staged a walkout at the outset – said they are only doing their jobs, enforcing the laws that Congress and the courts have put in place.
“Our commitment to consistent and fair enforcement of the law is demonstrated on a daily basis by the integrity, by the unbiased professionalism and the compassion of the men and women of the CBP exhibit toward the aliens we encounter, particularly toward the most vulnerable,” said Carla Provost, acting chief of U.S. Border Patrol. “We do not leave our humanity behind when we report for duty.”
Provost testified along with officials from the Public Health Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Justice Department – all of which have a hand in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border-enforcement policy.
That policy – announced in May by Sessions – required all illegal border crossers to be referred for criminal prosecution. Because courts bar the government from keeping families in custody for more than 20 days, immigration officials said they had no choice but to separate families that were stopped at the border and hold children apart from parents.
The backlash, from both sides of the aisle, was immediate and Trump in June issued an executive order that left the zero-tolerance policy in place but said it was the government’s goal to keep migrant families together.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, called the zero-tolerance policy “well-intentioned and simple,” citing the need for secure borders. But the policy had “unintended consequences” and immigration services subsequently mishandled family separation cases, he said, pointing to reports that some children have been subject to abuse while in custody.
“I’m disturbed by these allegations,” said Grassley, the chairman of the committee. “No one, no matter what their immigration status, should have to suffer such abuse.”
But Matthew Albence, executive associate director for Enforcement and Removal Operations with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described the family detention centers as “summer camps.”
“These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water,” Albence said. “They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities…. They have extensive medical, dental and mental health opportunities.”
When asked by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, if he would send his own children to the “summer camp” detention center he described, Albence said she was missing the point.
“These individuals are there because they’ve broken the law,” Albence said.
Customs and Border Protection estimated last month that 2,342 children were separated from their parents at the border from May to June. A federal court later ordered the families be reunited, but government officials have struggled to meet court-ordered deadlines because of problems tracking children and parents through the system, and concerns for the safety of the children in some cases.
Cmdr. Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service, which has helped in the reunification of families, testified that it is his “heartfelt conviction that we must reunify these children with their parents.”
“There is no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” White said. “What went wrong is children were separated from their parent.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the agencies should not be blamed when Congress has offered “no plausible or workable solution at all.”
“It’s not your fault that Congress has been unable to come up with a more sensible system of … enforcing our immigration laws,” Cornyn said. “It’s our responsibility, not yours.”
But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said the blame rests squarely with the administration.
He pointed to statements by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen who said after Trump reversed the separation policy that the government does “not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
“This started with the bright idea of somebody in the White House,” said Durbin, who called on Nielsen to resign. “Someone in this administration has to accept responsibility.”
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