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Health Secretary won’t give exact number on how many migrant kids were separated from their parents

Here's what Alex Azar said about how his office will reunite the families the government separated.

President Donald J. Trump speaks, with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar by his side, during an event on lowering drug prices in the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday, May 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump speaks, with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar by his side, during an event on lowering drug prices in the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday, May 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Just under 3,000 migrant kids remain in government custody after having been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, and 100 of those children are under 5 years old, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar told reporters on Thursday.

The news comes a week after a California federal judge told the Trump administration it needs to immediately reunite families it had separated as part of its “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting asylum-seeking parents who enter the U.S. between official ports of entry. The administration has until next Tuesday, or 14 days from the court order, to reunite 100 kids who are under five with their parents, and until the end of July, or 30 days from the court order, to reunite every separated child.

HHS did not tell reporters the number of families they have reunited so far when asked. 

In the conference call, Azar punted the blame for the high number of separated kids in its custody, saying parents shouldn’t have come “illegally.” Azar wouldn’t comment on lawsuits that allege HHS-contracted facilities have treated kids poorly, forcibly medicating some, only saying it’s “the theater of politics.” Azar, throughout, maintained today’s situation is the fault of immigrants, Congress, and the courts — not the Trump administration who separated families as a means to deter migration.

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Azar says his agency knows the “identity and location of every minor” in its custody, and “will comply with court deadline.” It’s unclear if that’ll actually happen, as there was never a formal process in place to reunite kids with their parents until recently. Prior to last week’s court order, HHS sought to place separated kids with sponsors, who could be parents already living in the United States, relatives, or other vetted caretakers — treating these kids the same as ones who came to the United States without parents. These kids stayed in ORR facilities for 40 days, on average.

Now, to comply with the court order, Azar said officials are having to more closely track kids who the government rendered “unaccompanied,” merging datasets from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and HHS, and deploying 230 HHS officials to DHS-run detention centers. Azar also told reporters, there were some instances where a child was reunited with their parents for joint deportation, prior to the court order. 

HHS is in the process of identifying and verifying the parent of each child in its custody, so they could be eventually reunited with their parent as to comply with the court order. HHS is using DNA tests to confirm the parents of children in its custody. Officials typically depend on official documents like birth certificates during the vetting process, but Azar said they are now relying more on DNA testing to meet the “extreme” and “arbitrary” court deadline. Another HHS official said they are not creating a database, just looking to confirm biological relationships with assistance from an outside contractor. Outside experts have raised flags about this practice because private DNA databases are subject to police subpoena and migrants are already a targeted group with Trump himself calling them “criminals.”  

“It might seem like a silver bullet,” Natalie Ram, an assistant professor of law at University of Baltimore, told Mother Jones. “[B]ut there are probably less privacy invasive ways that should be explored first.”

Reuniting kids with parents who are still in ICE detention, undergoing court proceedings, is a “novel proposition,” said Azar. He described it as such because you have one court order (Flores v. Reno or the “Flores settlement“) saying the government can’t hold “accompanied” kids in custody for more than 20 days, but now this most recent court order sends “kids back to DHS in ICE custody, indefinitely.” 

“That has not happened yet — that will happen only because [of the] court order,” Azar told reporters. 

Advocates have been saying for weeks now that family separation or family detention are not the Trump administration’s only options. The Human Rights Watch’s Clara Long described this as a “false choice,” highlighting a program the Trump administration recently ended that kept families together and free during immigration court proceedings.

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HHS has not given an exact number of kids being detained in more than a week. On June 26, it said that 2,047 kids separated from their family were being held in government custody. That is perhaps because officials are still reviewing the 11,800 kids in its custody, still verifying which kids came with a parent and which came unaccompanied. As Vox’s Dara Lind points out, a Department of Justice lawyer had said earlier that DHS had generally noted if a kid was separated from their parent or came unaccompanied in the child’s case file. This is why the judge thought it is possible to rush reunification through court order. Now, we know that wasn’t already the case.

This story has been updated to include further context as to why officials haven’t released an exact number of how many kids who are separated from parents are in an HHS-contracted facility.