When Trump administration officials talk about their “zero tolerance” policy on the southwest border, they’re often lying about what’s actually going on.
Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that undocumented immigrant children crossing the border would be separated from their families. Since then, President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed his administration’s own policy on Democrats. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has also equated family separation at the border with U.S. citizen children being removed from convicted parents. Parents at the border haven’t been convicted, only charged, and are likely fleeing persecution — and seeking asylum is a right afforded under U.S. law.
Now, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar — who oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which gains custody of these minors — is joining the chorus.
Testifying before a House committee on Wednesday, Azar said “individual children are separated from their parents only when those parents cross the border illegally and are arrested.”
“We can’t have children with parents who are in incarceration, and so then they’re given to me,” Azar told Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), who asked about the family separation policy. “If one presents at an actual border crossing and presents a case to come into this country, one is not arrested and one’s children are not separated from them.”
But it isn’t that simple.
The new zero-tolerance policy applies to everyone crossing the border without documentation — and that includes people seeking asylum. While the family separation isn’t indefinite, it is still happening. Parents are separated from their kids, who are then considered to have crossed the border as “unaccompanied minors.”
The administration hopes this blanket policy will deter people from crossing the border without documentation in the future.
But even before Sessions announced the new policy in May, there were cases of asylum-seeking families being separated at official ports of entry specifically. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency for separating hundreds of immigrant families, many of whom were asylum-seekers at those official ports. One such person was a Guatemalan woman, identified as Ms. M.M.A.L., who entered at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, with her son, seeking asylum. They were immediately separated.
“I worry about [my son] constantly and don’t know when I will see him. We have talked on the phone only once. I was given a number to call, but no one answers the phone,” she said after a month of separation, according the Nation.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is also making it harder for people to seek asylum legally, as Vox‘s Dara Lind notes. Immigrants who try to seek asylum “the right way” are sometimes turned away or physically blocked from setting foot on U.S. soil, which triggers the legal right to claim asylum.
“The parents have done nothing wrong, many are seeking asylum, running away from wars, violence and abusive situations,” said Maritza Solano, Director of Education at CASA. “Secretary Azar’s comments demonstrate a lack of compassion and understanding when it comes to the social and emotional impact separating children from their parents has on the child. These children will be scarred for life and distrustful of our system. As a country, we are better than that. This practice is simply inhumane and needs to be ended.”
Azar also maintained on Wednesday that once these kids are in HHS’ custody, and placed in temporary shelters, they are treated well.
While reporters can’t fully confirm claims that immigrant children are in cages — many kids are held in chain-link fence enclosures — ORR is overburdened and border patrol agents are allegedly abusive to unaccompanied minors. Even the very act of separating kids from their parents has a devastating emotional impact on children, said the managing attorney for Kids in Need of Defense Katie Annand, who has worked with many of these kids firsthand.
“They remembered every detail of the horrifying moment when immigration officials took their mother away,” said Annand. “The 7-year-old kept saying over and over how she was having trouble going to school because she missed her so much.”
As of April, more than 700 children were taken from their parents since October, according to the New York Times. More than 100 were four years and younger.
Throughout the hearing on Wednesday, Azar wasn’t able to answer a lot of questions relating to the intersection of immigration and health. He couldn’t speak of a reported immigration rule change regarding public charge that could reduce health coverage for thousands of kids, many U.S. citizen children. When asked if undocumented children should be eligible for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, he said “I have not studied or looked into that issue.”