Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Tuesday decried what he called "misinformation" surrounding the repercussions of the Trump administration's discontinued policy of separating migrant families at the southern border, saying some deported parents "have chosen" to remain separated from their children.
Of the parents who could be located in other countries, Wolf told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge, "almost in every instance — in fact, I can't think of one that they haven't — they have chosen to have their kids remain here in the United States while they remain back in their home countries. They have chosen. They themselves have chosen to separate their children from themselves."
Wolf was asked to respond to a recent status report by the Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that said 545 parents remained "unreachable" after being separated from their children by U.S. immigration officials in 2017 and 2018.
The parents, two-thirds of whom the ACLU thinks were deported to their home countries, could request the U.S. government to help them reunite with their children. They are among more than 1,000 migrant families split up before the Trump administration began its full-scale "zero tolerance" policy of systematically separating parents from their children in the spring of 2018, often to prosecute parents for the misdemeanor crime of crossing the border without permission.
The interview with Wolf was conducted the day before Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS),he was the "Anonymous" author of an 2018 op-ed and subsequent book about administration officials working to frustrate the president's agenda. As a top aide to former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Taylor, who left the government in 2019 and has publicly endorsed Joe Biden for president, would have been deeply involved in the department's implementation of the zero tolerance policy.
Most of the 2,800 families who were separated during the zero tolerance period were still in the U.S. when a federal judge blocked the policy, and were eventually reunited. Approximately 470 parents were deported during this period, and about one-third chose to have their children brought back to Central America, as the government generally opposed allowing them to return to the U.S. The rest allowed their children to remain in the U.S. without them.
Many of the migrant parents separated from their children in 2017 and early 2018, however, were deported without them, complicating reunification efforts. Because of stale or outdated personal information and phone numbers, advocates have been struggling to locate all parents, finding 485 out of 1,030. The ACLU has yet to say that any of the located parents want their children returned to Central America.
Citing this, Wolf said Tuesday: "Most folks need to keep in mind that the parents that are contacted that, again, are residing outside of the country, have chosen to remain there and have chosen to keep their children here."
The separations were conducted by DHS as part of an effort to deter would-be migrants from journeying north. Different government watchdog reports found that the Trump administration lacked the appropriate technology and inter-agency planning and communication to keep track of separated families and to reunite them when that was a possibility.
Under the zero tolerance policy, migrant parents were sent to adult detention centers, while their children were incorrectly classified as unaccompanied minors and transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees shelters and other housing facilities for underage migrants.
Most of the children of the 545 "unreachable" parents who remain in the U.S. were likely released from U.S. government custody to sponsors, who are typically family members in the U.S. But the ACLU said it has yet to locate 362 minors who could be eligible for reunifications.
"What we know is, almost all are coming here for economic reasons. And I don't fault them for that. But there is a legal way to come into the country, versus an illegal way," Wolf said. "So the department will continue to provide all the resources that we can, along with HHS, to the ACLU and to others that are responsible for contacting these individuals."
Responding to Wolf's comments, Lee Gelernt, the top ACLU attorney in the family separation court case, said his group has not yet stated that any of the 485 located parents want their children brought back to Central America because "overwhelmingly those families want to reunite with their child in the U.S." He added that the preference of the "unreachable" parents is unknown since they have not been located.
"The fundamental point is that the Trump administration is trying to suggest that these parents do not want their children. Nothing could be further from the truth," Gelernt told CBS News. "The administration is forcing families into the horrible choice of potential permanent separation or bringing a child back to danger, when what should happen is that parents should be allowed to rejoin their child in the United States. That is the simple and humane way to deal with the horrific problem created by this administration."
Asked Tuesday if he had any regrets about the zero tolerance policy, which was enforced when he was the DHS chief of staff, Wolf said he did not, and reiterated previous statements that he supported President Trump's executive order in June 2018 expressing support for "family unity," which came days before U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego brought an end to large-scale family separations.
Wolf also addressed recent developments in the court case over the Flores Settlement Agreement, which governs the care of all minors in U.S. immigration custody. He claimed U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who oversees the case, is "on the cusp of actually directing DHS to again start separating families."
He was likely referring to a protocol being drafted by the Justice Department and lawyers for detained migrant children that would allow parents in family detention to authorize the release of their children to sponsors. They would be separated, but the other option is remaining in detention together for the duration of their immigration proceedings.
Gee has ordered both parties to finalize the procedure in the coming weeks. But several issues remain unresolved, including the Trump administration's insistence that Gee approve all requests from parents who choose to have their children released from detention to a sponsor, who can be a family member in the U.S.
Gee approved the creation of this protocol because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continued to detain minors with their parents in unlicensed detention facilities for more than 20 days, despite her previous orders and a requirement in the Flores settlement that mandates officials to seek the prompt release of children.
"We now have a District Court judge in California who's about to say, 'You have to again, separate families and allow their children to stay here while you send their parents back,'" Wolf said.
Wolf did not note that ICE has the authority to release families together and allow them to continue their immigration proceedings, which can include asylum claims, outside of detention. The Trump administration has opposed this, arguing it encourages parents to cross the border illegally with their children.
It is also unclear how many parents would choose to allow their children to be released without them. In May, ICE reported to Gee that not a single parent in ICE family detention wanted to be separated from their kids.
"Parent Does Not Wish to Separate," ICE noted in spreadsheets detailing why the agency denied parole to most minors in its custody at the time.
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