Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters on a conference call on Thursday that his department will meet the deadlines imposed by federal courts to reunify thousands of immigrant children who were taken from their families and detained in separate facilities, but admitted they have yet to send a single child to rejoin their parents in immigration detention.
On the call, an exasperated-sounding Azar characterized the immigrant parents as criminals for bringing their children in the first place, dismissed reports of abuse in his detention centers as “the theater of politics,” and repeatedly suggested that immigrants claiming to be parents are in fact unrelated to the children taken from them.
Still, Azar insisted his agency would comply with the court’s order.
“We have a plan in place to get this job done,” he said.
On June 26, a federal court in California issued a national injunction mandating that the Trump administration return all children taken from their parents in 30 days. Children under 5 years old must be reunited in 14 days, a deadline that expires next Tuesday.
As Azar complained that courts are engaging in the “micromanagement of child welfare” and imposing “artificial deadlines,” he admitted that so far the only children reunited with their parents since the court’s deadline have been “for the purposes of joint deportation.”
The day of the court ruling, Azar testified before Congress that his department had 2,047 children in its custody who had been separated from their parents by the Trump administration. On Thursday’s conference call, Azar said the number is now somewhere under 3,000, because the federal court order covers a wider class of separated children than his agency was originally counting, including hundreds more that were separated before Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy officially went into effect. One hundred of the separated children in their custody are under the age of five.
Azar said he could not give a more exact total number because “information from children may be unreliable” regarding their journey to the United States.
Usually, Azar told reporters, the agency verifies the parentage of the children in their custody through birth certificates and other documents, some of which must be requested from the family’s home country. Because of the court deadline, however, they have moved to conducting DNA testing, collecting samples that they send to a private contractor for analysis.
Several members of Congress have asked HHS to use DNA testing to help reunify parents and children, and several companies have offered to donate the kits necessary to do so. But immigrant rights and privacy advocates have sounded alarm bells about the practice.
Jonathan White, the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, did not answer reporters’ questions Thursday about what happens to the DNA samples after a match is found and what protections are in place to ensure they are not shared with law enforcement or other government agencies.
“This isn’t some vast sprawling database looking for matches,” he said, noting that testing will only take place to compare samples from individuals who request reunification and claim they are related.
As they race to meet the court’s deadline, HHS says they are also moving the parents of children younger than five years old to detention facilities closer to where their children are housed.
Over the past few weeks, multiple federal courts have ruled against the Trump administration’s immigration practices, and public outrage and political pressure is mounting amid a flow of news reports and watchdog investigations documenting widespread human suffering.
In response, the usually even-keeled and bookish Azar used rhetoric similar to the President’s when speaking to reporters on Thursday’s call, blaming the parents themselves for the forced separations.
Azar said that all of the parents committed a crime by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and said a “surefire way” for them to have avoided the loss of their children would have been to remain in their home country and apply for a visa. Azar also characterized the “zero tolerance” policy of the Trump administration — which involves criminally prosecuting everyone who commits the civil infraction of crossing into the country without papers — as the only alternative to “open borders.”