Top official says government can't reunite migrant families under current law

Top official says government can't reunite migrant families under current law
© Greg Nash

The head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said Tuesday he is powerless to reunite migrant children with their parents unless Congress changes the laws regarding detention time limits.

Under questioning from Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, HHS Secretary Alex Azar indicated it's the responsibility of Congress or the courts to reunite the 2,047 migrant children still in the agency's custody.

“We are working to get all these kids ready to be placed back with their parents as soon as Congress passes a change, or if those parents complete their immigration proceedings,” Azar said. “We do not want any children separated from their parents any longer than necessary under the law.”

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Current law says families can’t be detained for more than 20 days. If a parent is in immigration detention with the Department of Homeland Security for longer than 20 days, their children must be placed in the custody of HHS.

That agreement, known as the Flores settlement, dates back to 1997, but last week the Department of Justice asked a federal district court to modify it amid the current border crisis.

"I cannot reunite them, though, while the parents are in custody because of the court order that doesn't allow the kids to be with their parents for more than 20 days. We need Congress to fix that," Azar said.

The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy has caused the thousands of separations, but an executive order Trump signed last week amid intense political pressure was intended to keep families together while in detention.

Questions have swirled as to whether the agency is capable of handling the challenge of reuniting the children with their families.

Azar defended the administration’s response. He said public health service officers are working with parents to put them in touch with their children.

“There is no reason why any parent would not know where their child is located,” Azar said, adding he could locate “any child within seconds” through an online government portal.

But Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: NYT says Rosenstein wanted to wear wire on Trump | Twitter bug shared some private messages | Vendor put remote-access software on voting machines | Paypal cuts ties with Infowars | Google warned senators about foreign hacks Overnight Health Care: Opioids package nears finish line | Measure to help drug companies draws ire | Maryland ObamaCare rates to drop Google says senators' Gmail accounts targeted by foreign hackers MORE (D-Ore.), the committee’s ranking member, said Azar’s comments don’t align with firsthand accounts, and said an online system won’t help.

“Portals are not part of the daily existence of these people,” Wyden said.

Media reports from the border show a confusing situation with parents unable to locate their children, often being given wrong or misleading information.

“The American people have been getting lots of deception, lots of rosy answers, not many facts,” Wyden said.

Azar did not say how long those separated children would remain in HHS shelters. He said “hundreds” of children have been reunited with their parents or another relative, but declined to say how many parents have been told where their kids are.

He said HHS conducts extensive vetting of adults to make sure they're not traffickers masquerading as parents.