The same day the federal government missed a court-imposed deadline to reunite roughly 84 children under the age of 5 with their families — after being forcibly separated from them at the U.S.-Mexico border — Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar appeared on CNN to defend how his agency has handled the recent immigration crisis.
“We have nothing to hide about how we operate these facilities,” Azar told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday night, referring to the juvenile and “tender age” facilities in which many of the separated children are currently being detained, which HHS officials have barred media outlets and public figures from filming or visiting unannounced.
Speaking to the conditions in which the children are being held, he added, “It is one of the great acts of American generosity and charity, what we are doing for these unaccompanied kids.”
Azar appeared to be using an incorrect term for children forcibly removed from their families at the border; typically, the term “unaccompanied” refers to those children who arrive at the border alone or without a parent or guardian present.
"We have nothing to hide about how we operate these facilities. … It is one of the great acts of American generosity and charity, what we are doing for these unaccompanied kids," HHS Secretary Alex Azar says https://t.co/ryBqQ5uCVb pic.twitter.com/y90wFEnBOw
— CNN (@CNN) July 11, 2018
The act of separating 3,000 children from their parents — HHS’ latest estimate for the number of minors in their care — is hardly generous. As many experts have noted, doing so can be deeply traumatic for the child and can cause long-lasting damage to their mental health.
Last month, several media outlets published leaked footage and audio of some of those detention centers, in which children can be heard wailing and sobbing for their parents. “We have an orchestra here,” one border official is overheard saying in audio obtained by ProPublica, mocking the crying children. In audio from a phone call given to Vice News, another detained child cries to his mother, who is on the other end of the line, in Guatemala. “Everytime I go to sleep, I pray for you,” he says.
The Trump administration has also had trouble keeping tabs on the families it separated at the border. Earlier in June, after President Trump signed an executive order reversing the family separation practice he himself had implemented as part of a broader “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, a federal judge in San Diego instructed the administration to reunite separated children with their parents within 30 days, or 14 days for children under the age of 5.
However, during a conference call Friday afternoon, government officials requested an extension of that deadline, admitting to a federal judge that they had lost track of 20 percent of separated toddlers’ parents and would be unable to reunite them with their children by the July 10 cut-off. In a follow-up call Monday, during which the judge declined to offer an extension, administration officials further admitted they had only reunited four of the 102 children younger than 5 with their families and would not be reuniting 27 of them because their parents had criminal records.
As The Daily Beast reported Tuesday, HHS has done the bare minimum to help reunite families, making the parents responsible for their own reunification. According to the outlet, U.S. officials recently told four immigrant women that they must pay for their own DNA tests in order to be reunited with their children, to prove they are, indeed, related. The tests are conducted by a private contractor on behalf of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the care and housing of immigrant children.
Contrary to Azar’s claim that the agency has been making sure children are well taken-care of, some HHS shelters housing unaccompanied minors and children separated at the border also have dark histories of abuse.
As ThinkProgress previously reported, HHS has spent millions placing immigrant children into abusive homes, and some of the “tender age” facilities where the youngest children separated at the border are sent have faced allegations of sexual and physical abuse over the years. A recent ThinkProgress investigation, for instance, found that a shelter for unaccompanied minors, contracted by HHS, currently employs a man with a history of sex crimes. The shelter has also taken in children separated at the border.