HHS says it’s looking at setting up ‘family camps’
where children and parents would be detained together
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) today pressed Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar for specifics on what his agency is doing to reunite more than 2,000 children who were separated from their parents at the border – and why he’s been unable to speak to the one person he was told is responsible for reuniting 70 kids who were separated from their families and now being held in Homestead, Florida.
Nelson asked the secretary directly, while he was testifying under oath, why he was not allowed to speak to the 70 children who were separated from their parents and are now being held at the Homestead facility Nelson visited Saturday.
“On Saturday, I was not allowed, in the detention facility in Homestead, Florida, to speak with the 70 children that I was told that were there that had been separated from their parents,” Nelson said.
“You should have been,” Azar admitted in response to Nelson.
When Nelson then pressed Azar to explain his agency’s plan to reunite these separated children with their parents, Azar suggested that the solution rested with Congress and its ability to pass a bill that would allow these families to be detained together indefinitely by changing the current standards that prevent the Department of Homeland Security from detaining a child for more than 20 days.
“So what is the plan to reunite 2,300 children?” Nelson asked.
“We’re not allowed to have a child be with a parent who is in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security for more than 20 days, Azar responded, and so until we can get Congress to change that law to the forcible separation there of the family units, we’ll hold them or place them with another family relative in the United States.”
Nelson concluded his questioning by asking the secretary why he has been unable to talk to the one woman he was told was in charge of reuniting the 70 children at Homestead, Florida. The secretary told Nelson that he would work with his office to arrange that call.
Moments after Nelson finished questioning Azar, HHS did arrange a call for Nelson to speak to the staff at Homestead, Florida that is in charge of reuniting the 70 children there.
On that call, Nelson was told that of the 70 children at Homestead who were separated from their families, 62 have contacted their parents, while another 8 have not. HHS officials told Nelson that the reason that the eight children have not been in contact with their parents is because HHS has been unable to locate them, and officials admitted to Nelson that the parents may have been deported already.
Of the 62 children whose parents have been contacted, two have requested that their children be sent back to their home countries, while the other 60 have requested that HHS place them with sponsors or relatives in the U.S.
HHS told Nelson that while they are not allowed to send any of the children to be with their parents at a detention facility here in the U.S., the agency is looking at setting up “family camps” where children and parents could be detained together. Nelson asked HHS what a “family camp” is, and how it would work. HHS officials told Nelson they do not know yet.
And here’s a rush transcript:
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Finance Committee hearing
June 26, 2018
Sen Nelson: Mr. Secretary, I’d like to seek some answers, respectfully, to have a civil discourse. You are a friend of a close friend of mine, and I respect that. On Saturday, I was not allowed, in the detention facility in Homestead, Florida, to speak with the 70 children that I was told that were there that had been separated from their parents. Do you know what has changed since Saturday with those 70?
Sec. Azar: So Senator, we are very happy to arrange visits for Senators and members of Congress to these facilities. We do need to do so in a way that’s orderly because they are trying – the first and foremost priority is the safety and well-being of these children, that we and our grantees care very deeply about. And you should have been, and would have been, able to interact with them but not of course interview them.
These are minor children and they are not there to be deposed or interviewed so I want to be careful about that- that is just simply not acceptable, we have to protect these children. They are in care, they are in shelter, this is a difficult situation for all of them and we just we all – I’m sure you share that desire. We are doing our best and our upmost to be respectful of those children –
Sen. Nelson: Mr. Secretary, I didn’t ask that. I asked what has happened since Saturday to those 70 children.
Sec. Azar: Well I don’t know which 70 children you met with –
Sen. Nelson: No no, no no. I didn’t meet with any of them. I was not allowed to – as you just stated –
Sec. Azar: You are allowed to be in their presence, but you can’t depose them.
Sen. Nelson: I understand. So my question – please, I’m trying to be respectful – my question is the 70 children that I was told were in that facility that had been separated from their parents, what has happened to them?
Sec. Azar: So they would either continue to be in our care, or if they have reached a point where a sponsor who is in the United States, who is a parent or relative, has been vetted and has been approved for sponsorship, they would have been released as expeditiously as possible to those sponsors.
Sen. Nelson: How many of those children have been able to be in contact by telephone with their parents from whom they were separated?
Sec. Azar: So for any of them who have been separated from their parents at the time of the parents detention by CBP, within 2 hours of arriving at an ORR shelter, we endeavor to put them in touch, get them on the phone with their parents. Sometimes that can’t happen, if for instance the parent has been located for criminal prosecution and put in place by the Bureau of Prisons, say for instance a county jail, it may be harder to arrange that communication. We’re sending deploying Public Health Service officers to facilitate that. We want every child and every parent to be in communication at least twice a week so that they’re talking by skype or by phone available. We want this to happen, we want this to happen, so I can’t say as to those 70 but all should have been within 24 hours of arriving made in touch if at all possible with the parent if the parent was accessible where they were being kept.
Sen. Nelson: Okay now I asked that question of the lady who is overseeing the facilities of getting the children in touch and she said that a handful of the children had not been able to be on the telephone so I said well what is your plan for reuniting these children and she said there is a lady named Barbara Flotus, who since I was there on Saturday, she doesn’t work except on the week days, well I said well I will try to reach Barbara Flotus to tell me what is the plan. I was prevented from speaking with Barbara Flotus yesterday Monday – can you help arrange that so that I can know what the plan is to reunite the children?
Sec. Azar: So we will be happy to work with you to arrange through the grantee, of course, she is not an employee of my department.
Sen: Nelson: Through the grantee?
Sec. Azar: So of course it would be their decision if they want to make her available. We will continue to work with your staff to facilitate if you wish to speak with her.
Sen. Nelson: You will not hinder me from talking?
Sec. Azar: Of course not.
Sen. Nelson: Well yesterday that occurred. So what is the plan to reunite 2,300 children?
Sec. Azar: Absolutely. So the first thing we need to do is for any of the parents, we have to confirm parentage. So that’s part of the process with any child in our care. There are traffickers, there are smugglers, there are frankly just some bad people occasionally. We have to ensure that the parentage is confirmed. We have to vet those parents to ensure there is no criminality or violent history on them. That’s part of the regular process for any placement of an individual. At that point, they will be ready to be reconnected with their parents. This is where our very broken immigration laws come in to play. We’re not allowed to have a child be with a parent who is in custody of the Department of Homeland Security for more than 20 days. And so until we can get Congress to change that law to the forcible separation of the family units, we’ll hold them or place them with another family or relative in the United States. We are working to get all these kids ready to be placed back with their parents, get that all cleared up, as soon as Congress passes that change or if those parents complete their immigration proceedings. We can then reunify. We want to be ready. The president shares our – we don’t want any children separated from their parents from any longer than necessary under the law. And we want to effectuate that and make that happen.