Feb. 7 (UPI) -- U.S. lawmakers learned Thursday from a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services that another agency, the Department of Homeland Security, refused to heed his warnings about the problems and consequences of separating thousands of migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I do not believe that separation of children is in the best interests of the child," said Cmdr. Jonathan White, a career employee at HHS and previous director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement -- the agency that runs the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program.
"No one at HHS ever separated a single child from their parents," White said during a House subcommittee hearing in Washington. "Neither I nor any career person" in the Office of Refugee Resettlement "would ever have supported such a policy proposal."
Migrant family separation began formally in April 2018 when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced a zero-tolerance policy for unlawful border crossers.
At the time, the U.S. government justified the now-repudiated family separation policy because criminal prosecutions brought by the Justice and Homeland Security departments for unlawfully crossing the U.S.-Mexico border would require adults' pretrial detention. Children cannot be held in jails, and family separation affected thousands of them.
White emphasized that children from Central America, who comprise 90 percent of unaccompanied migrant minors, already had been traumatized before and during their journey to the United States.
"They often have extraordinarily severe histories of traumatic exposures and adverse childhood experiences," White, a clinical social worker and emergency manager, told members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
"They come from communities that are confronted by severe poverty and food insecurity, as well as severe violence, and often they have been victims of violence and extortion by gangs. Their lifetime exposure to violence and sexual assault is very high."
White told lawmakers that separating children from their parents risks adding to their severe psychological trauma, and that he voiced concerns to officials at Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"On a number of occasions, I and my colleagues made recommendations raising concerns not only about what that would mean for children, but also what it would mean for the capacity of the program" to shelter children, White said.
He said he first learned U.S. immigration enforcement agencies were considering separating children from their parents in February 2017. That was more than a year before it became formal practice, with zero tolerance, last April.
"On the occasions I raised it, I was told there was no policy that would result in the separation of children from their parents, and that remained the answer I received during my entire tenure," White said. He said he left the Office of Refugee Resettlement in March 2018, a month before Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy.
When the Trump administration decided to implement a policy of criminally prosecuting all unlawful border crossers in April 2018, it did not inform the secretary of Health and Human Services, White said.
This failure to communicate meant that ORR, the agency charged with caring for children separated from their families, could not prepare its shelter network for an influx of thousands of children.
"It remains very unclear when family separation started and how many of them there were," said Mark Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former official in the Administration of Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, to which ORR belongs.
"It does though seem clear that the career staff at HHS were not told that the practice had changed or a new policy was being implemented and that virtually assured that HHS could not be prepared for what it faced with the separated children coming into its care," Greenberg said.
"It's deeply disturbing because apart from the morality of the policy, it had enormous implications for the people who were running the shelter system for unaccompanied children, and they simply could not prepare for it if no one was telling them it was happening."
U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., the subcommittee's ranking member, told White, "I want to note that the zero-tolerance policy was created and implemented by other departments who are not here testifying." He was referring to the Homeland Security and Justice departments.
The precise number of migrant children separated from their parents in 2017 and 2018 is unknown because before April 2018 and the formal beginning of zero-tolerance, neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the Office of Refugee Resettlement had a database to track separated children, Kathryn Larin and Rebecca Gambler, auditors at the Government Accountability Office said in sworn testimony to the subcommittee.
The auditors said DHS has since updated its computer system to indicate if it separated children from their families -- something only now done, the government says, if the child's welfare is at risk.
While lawmakers peppered White and other witnesses with questions about family separation, U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., held a rally on the Capitol steps demanding Congress defund programs that enforce deportation of immigrants.
Abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement was one of Ocasio-Cortez's campaign promises.