Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service testified before a House subcommittee looking into the "zero-tolerance policy" last April that resulted in the separation of more than 2,700 children. He served as the deputy director for the office that oversees migrant children, and was brought back from another post to oversee reunification efforts.
The hearing reflected the priorities of newly empowered Democrats who took control of the House in January. Democrats were sharply critical of President Donald Trump's family separation policy and though the policy has ended, they continue to press for answers about how it came to be.
"There is no evidence that HHS leaders ever tried to stop this abhorrent policy," said subcommittee leader Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat. "As the agency dedicated to the health and welfare of children, we need to know why."
White said he attended briefings on the possibility of separating children in 2017, but was told there was no policy in place. He said he learned of the zero tolerance policy from a news conference given by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
White said he was not aware that anyone the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services knew the policy was coming. White led the HHS effort to reunify children with their parents. The department made White available to the committee after HHS Secretary Alex Azar chose not to attend.
Health and Human Services agencies manage the care of migrant children in the U.S., including those separated from their parents at the border. The vast majority of children under their care, tens of thousands, cross the border alone.
"Separating children poses significant risk of traumatic psychological injury to the child," White testified. He said neither he nor anyone he worked with "would ever have supported such a policy." The separations were met with mass outrage from religious leaders, lawmakers and health officials who called them inhumane. They were stopped June 20 when Trump issued an executive order. A federal judge ruled about a week later that the children had to be reunified with their parents.
But there was no system in place to connect children to their parents, who were being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. White said officials combed through thousands of records by hand to find children who had been separated.
The court ruling involved about 2,700 children separated under the zero-tolerance policy where parents were criminally prosecuted for illegally entering the U.S. The HHS internal watchdog said last month likely thousands more were separated starting in 2017, but because no specific separation records exist before the judge's ruling, they can't say for sure how many. Those children have already been released out to sponsors —in large part, parents or close relatives.
The government is allowed to separate children to protect the safety and security of the child if there are serious medical concerns, if the parent has a criminal history, if it's unclear the person is a parent. White said there is no process for parents to appeal a separation.
The committee also heard from a doctors, a child psychologist and advocacy groups that helped children separated by the Trump administration. Attorney Lee Gelernt from the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit that challenged the separations, said the policy was "the worst thing I've seen in my 25 years" of doing immigration and civil liberties work.