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HHS official urges Congress to limit migrant family separation

Stephen Miller behind DHS overhaul

Washington — As some in the Trump administration press for a revival of its so-called "zero tolerance" policy, a top Health and Human Services (HHS) official urged Congress on Tuesday to act and limit the government's authority to separate migrant children from their families. 

"You should, in statute, define the conditions to which it is permissible to remove a child from a parent. And I submit that it should only be for the safety of the child or if the parent faces criminal charges other than misdemeanor 1325," Jonathan White, commander of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps of HHS, told lawmakers, referring to a section in U.S. law which outlines "improper entry" by migrants into the U.S.

During a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the unprecedented flow of migrant families heading towards the U.S.-Mexico border, White, one of the most vocal Trump administration officials critical of the practice that led to the separation of thousands of migrant families, again slammed the zero tolerance policy. 

He was asked by the committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, if HHS, the federal agency in charge of caring for unaccompanied migrant minors, was overwhelmed during the height of the controversial policy's implementation.

"That's correct," he replied. "Both our total capacity — and specifically our capacity to serve very young children — since separation disproportionately results in us getting babies, toddlers and young children."

White said the chief problem with the zero tolerance policy — beyond the massive public outcry that forced the president to end it — was not a lack of data sharing between different federal agencies, but the fact that children, including babies and infants, were taken away from their parents. 

"The issue is not how well it was tracked, the issue is that it happened at all," he said, adding later that "orderly systems for the exchange of data do not undo the harm caused by separating children from their parents."

Asked what other changes Congress should work on, White said the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) — the agency within HHS which cares for unaccompanied migrant minors — should be vested with the same authority the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has to determine whether a migrant child is unaccompanied or accompanied. He said HHS should also be able to refuse a DHS referral of a child who the agency deems was in fact accompanied before being separated from his or her family.  

When the administration separated more than 2,600 migrant families near the border in 2018, DHS referred separated children to HHS custody after designating them "unaccompanied minors." Although Mr. Trump said Tuesday he not looking to reinstate the practice, multiple administration officials have told CBS News both he and his senior adviser Stephen Miller have advocated for doing so as part of their "tougher" approach to immigration — which led to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's resignation and a purge of the agency's leadership.   

White was also pressed by California Democrat and 2020 presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris about the February revelation that more than 4,000 allegations of sexual abuse against migrant children in HHS custody were reported by the agency between October 2014 and July 2018. The HHS official noted many of the reports involved allegations of sexual abuse by migrant children against other migrant children, as well as allegations of "improper" sexual conduct. But he stressed one allegation of sexual abuse was a sign the agency and "the system" failed a child. 

Asked by Harris if HHS informed DHS of the sexual abuse allegations when the administration was implementing the family separation policy, White said he was not aware of any notification. He added the psychological trauma endured by children separated from their parents and the sexual abuse allegations in care centers overseen by HHS were "separate" issues. 

"The traumatization of children by separation does not need any child to have been harmed criminally by an adult. That act of the government entails harm to a child, " White said. "So, these are two important problems — but they're separate problems."

Major Garrett and Arden Farhi contributed to this report.

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