HHS tries to clamp down on unannounced lawmaker visits to child detention centers

HHS tries to clamp down on unannounced lawmaker visits to child detention centers

The Department of Health and Human Services is urging lawmakers to schedule visits to detention centers housing migrant children instead of showing up at the facilities unannounced.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday MORE (R-Iowa) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.), the agency asked the lawmakers to help coordinate congressional visits to HHS-funded detention facilities.

The facilities, which are located across the country, house children who have been separated from their parents after illegally crossing into the U.S. via the southern border.

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“Nearly 500 work hours have been spent facilitating congressional visits” to facilities for more than 70 members of Congress, HHS said, adding that those hours could have been put to better use.

“Many of these hours would otherwise have been spent … 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,” HHS said in the letter.

The agency has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after several Democratic lawmakers were denied access to families at some of the detention centers. HHS said access was denied in those instances because the lawmakers did not give the required two weeks notice.

The two-week policy has been in place since 2015, HHS said.

The letter to Grassley and Goodlatte, whose committees have jurisdiction over the agency's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), did not say whether lawmakers are allowed to photograph conditions at the centers or interact with the children.

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The letter also did not specify whether lawmakers who show up without notice would be barred from entering the facilities.

“HHS has made considerable efforts to accommodate requests for Congressional visits to our funded facilities,” HHS press secretary Evelyn Stauffer said in a statement. “Despite these efforts, there continue to be members and staff who disregard long-standing policies for visit requests and accommodations, creating significant and unnecessary strain on grantee shelters’ staff, whose first and foremost priority is providing for the safety, security, and care of youth at their facilities.”

HHS is being hammered by Democrats, who are demanding specific details on how many children have been separated from their families and details about agency efforts to reunite them with their parents.

Last week, ORR said it had in custody more than 2,000 children who have been separated from their parents.

But on Monday, HHS said it will no longer publicly provide the number of children in custody as a result of the administration's controversial zero tolerance policy on illegal immigration. Instead, it will only provide a total number of unaccompanied minors, including those who crossed the border alone.