WASHINGTON -- Senators grilled Trump administration officials Tuesday during a public hearing focused on the president’s "zero-tolerance" policy that separated thousands of migrant families.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the policies of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have essentially orphan hundreds of immigrant children,” said Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein during opening remarks at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Even worse are the stories we heard about that bad separations and the bad conditions in which they were held.”
As of July 26, the administration reported it reunited more than 1,400 children with their parents, a deadline set by a federal court judge, but about 700 children remain in government custody. Democrats argue the reunification process would not occur without the judge’s intervention, and that the administration is responsible for creating the problem in the first place when it set up the zero-tolerance policy in April. Trump later lifted the policy in June due to intense public backlash.
On Tuesday, administration officials defended their approach to border security.
“I want to dispel the myth that prosecuting illegal border crossings or separating adults from children in custody is unique to zero-tolerance or to this administration,” said Carla Provost, the acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, during her testimony before the Senate panel.
She said that while zero-tolerance has increased the volume of cases for prosecution, the agency has long maintained a law enforcement mission at the border during past administrations.
“The law is not ambiguous,” Provost said. “Any alien that enters or attempts to enter the United States at a place other than a port of entry has committed a violation.”
Lawmakers pressed for information about the treatment of children and parents detained, concerned about alleged abuse. The Senate Judiciary Committee requested a report on the policies implemented at the detention centers to protect undocumented immigrant families.
Matthew Albence, an executive associate director of ICE’s Enforcement arm, said “rigorous standards” are applied at the facilities, with officers monitoring migrants held as residents, calling the conditions “more like a summer camp” than anything else due to ample food, water, education and recreational activities.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Chuck Grassley of Iowa are pushing legislation that would allow families to remain in custody together for a few months.
“It would allow parents and children to stay in a safe facility while they wait their court proceedings and then move them to the front of the line to present their case before an immigration judge,” said Texas Republican John Cornyn of the proposed bill from his colleagues.
He added there isn’t enough support to proceed, despite the need to “pass that legislation” without delay.
“I hope that just maybe the efforts to come up with a solution are not dead and we will be able to come up with a compassionate solution to the problem, which is to keep families together and enforce the law,” Cornyn said.
Democrats not only want better documentation of the separation and reunification processes, there is also a push to conduct special investigations on the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois went as far as to call for the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to step down, calling her the “architect of this humanitarian disaster” at the border.
“Someone in this administration has to accept responsibility. We can have border security without bullying. We can be safe without treating toddlers as terrorists,” Durbin said.