Federal Official Says Lawmakers’ Visits to Detention Centers Take From Resources Toward Family Reunifications

The Department of Health and Human Services is suggesting that arrangements necessary to accommodate members of Congress who want to visit holding facilities at the border could drain resources that would otherwise be used to reunite immigrant families that were separated.

In a letter dated Monday to the House and Senate chairmen of the judiciary committees, HHS Assistant Secretary for Legislation Matthew Bassett wrote that an uptick in congressional interest in the facilities has “created resource constraints that are threatening to impact (the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s) ability to quickly reunite the children in our care with a parent or safely place them with a sponsor.”

President Donald Trump reversed course last month and signed an executive order that he said would keep families together at the border, but the administration continues to face scrutiny and questions over what will happen to the undocumented families who were separated as a result of the administration’s widely criticized “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

CNN has previously reported that it’s not clear how many migrant families have been reunited since a judge ordered the US government to halt most family separations at the border or how many kids from separated immigrant families are still in government custody, because officials haven’t specified.

At one point in late June, figures released by the government suggested that only six children were reunited over a six-day stretch following the executive order, though it’s unknown if those children reunited with parents, other family or otherwise transferred out of HHS custody. Since then, Trump administration officials have refused to release new statistics on children who were separated from their families at the border.

Amid the fallout over family separations, some members of Congress have attempted to visit immigration facilities and a number of lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, have criticized the administration over the issue.

Protestors link arms after tying children's shoes and keys on the fence outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center during a demonstration against a Trump administration policy that separated migrant children from parents, in San Diego on June 23, 2018. (Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images)

Protestors link arms after tying children’s shoes and keys on the fence outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center during a demonstration against a Trump administration policy that separated migrant children from parents, in San Diego on June 23, 2018. (Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images)

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Peolsi, a California Democrat, said in a statement that “Congressional oversight of this matter has already been proven to be critical in ensuring that the Administration’s constant abuses are held in check.”

“Eight days after a federal judge ordered the Trump Administration to immediately begin the process of reuniting the children they put in cages back with their families, there’s scant evidence that a comprehensive plan to do just that has been developed,” he said. “Congressional oversight of this matter has already been proven to be critical in ensuring that the Administration’s constant abuses are held in check, that the law is being obeyed, and that taxpayers’ resources are not being squandered.”

Ray Zaccaro, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, echoed that sentiment, saying in a statement, “Congressional oversight is not a waste of time.”

“Before Senator Merkley demanded to see these facilities, they were shrouded in secrecy and Americans had no idea the extent to which the Administration’s zero tolerance policy led to the incarceration of children and separation from their families,” he said. “Given their track record of obfuscation, it’s not surprising to learn HHS has found public disclosure inconvenient.”

In the HHS letter, Bassett wrote that roughly 500 hours have been devoted to “facilitating congressional visits” and said “many of these hours would otherwise have been spent by ORR field and grantee staff verifying parental relationships to prevent child trafficking, facilitating check-in calls between parents and children, facilitating and reviewing foster family home studies, coordinating the delivery of food and medical supplies, and many other duties vital to the health and welfare of the children.”