WASHINGTON -- Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, the new head of a congressional oversight panel, led a congressional hearing Thursday on a controversial Trump administration immigration policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their parents if they entered the United States illegally.
"What happened to these children should never happen in this country," DeGette, a Denver Democrat, said in her new role as chairperson of the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee. "It's important to keep in mind these are real families, real kids who were forcibly torn apart and kept apart by our government."
Appointed in January, DeGette had said that the "first issue" she would look into was the separation of children from their families at the border.
The hearing was prompted partly by a report last month from the inspector general for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
The report said thousands more children than the 2,737 originally reported were separated from their families at the border during an influx that began in 2017. The separations won a policy endorsement last April when then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy on illegal immigration.
Both Democrats and Republicans responded with criticisms about family separations.
One day after the report was released, DeGette sent Health and Human Services Acting Secretary Alex Azar a letter demanding that he turn over internal documents explaining the agency’s role in the administration’s policy that allowed family separations.
“We are concerned that instead of prioritizing what is in the best interest of the children in [Health and Human Services’] custody, you have allowed your agency to be turned into a mechanism for immigration enforcement,” DeGette wrote to Azar.
The oversight subcommittee asked Azar to testify at the hearing Thursday but he declined, prompting further criticism by DeGette.
Instead, the 10 witnesses consisted mostly of other representatives from federal agencies, child welfare organizations and civil rights groups.
The Health and Human Services Department was unprepared for the influx of migrant children that were separated by the Trump administration policy, said Ann Maxwell, an assistant inspector general for the agency.
The agency tried to monitor separated families but was confronted by “the absence of reliable data about their circumstances,” Maxwell said.
The separations followed a memo in April from former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that set a "zero tolerance" policy on illegal immigration.
A federal judge issued a court order last year halting family separations based on the parents’ immigration status. Separations to protect endangered children still are allowed.
The number of separations is “significantly less” now compared with the high point in the summer of 2017, Maxwell said.
She said communications with Customs and Border Protection officials have improved but that the Health and Human Services Department continues to lack complete information about the reasons children and parents are separated.
"The most common reason DHS reported these recent separations is a parent's criminal history," Maxwell said. DHS refers to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection.
The reports often lacked detailed information about the parents’ criminal records, she said.
Jonathan White, the former deputy director of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, described his agency’s efforts to reunify parents and children.
He added that he not only disagreed with the family separation policy but said it could traumatize the children for years.
“Separation of parents is a traumatic event and has the potential for those psychological consequences,” White said.
Republicans who joined Democrats in criticizing the policy included Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
He said every Republican on his committee signed a letter in June to the Health and Human Services Department saying migrant children should not be separated from their parents.