U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar went before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday to discuss prescription drug pricing. However, several committee members, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), also grilled Azar over his department’s treatment of migrant children separated from their families at the border.
Nelson didn’t exactly get the answers he was looking for regarding an estimated 70 separated children being held at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in South Florida.
Sec. Azar told senators that more than 2,300 children were separated from their parents at the U.S. border under the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy, but that as of Tuesday that number was down to 2,047.
Azar could not say exactly how many had been reunified with family or placed with vetted relatives already living in the U.S., but says that number is now in the hundreds.
“They would be unified with either parents or other relatives under our policy, so of course, if the parents remain in detention, unfortunately, under rules that are set by Congress and the courts, they can’t be reunified while they’re (the parents) in detention,” said Sec. Azar.
Azar also said his department has deployed public health service officers to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement case managers to help make sure parents in detention know where their children are and to facilitate communication with them via phone or skype. “We want to have every child and every parent connected and in regular communication,” said Azar.
“So for any of them who have been separated from their parent at the time of the parents’ detention by the customs and border patrol, within 24-hours of arriving at an ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) shelter, we endeavor to put them in touch, get on the phone with their parent.”
Sen. Nelson engaged in an exchange with Secretary Azar in an attempt to learn more about an estimated 70 children separated from their parents who are now at the Homestead facility, which Nelson visited Saturday, after first being denied admission four days earlier.
“We’re doing our best and our utmost to be respectful of those children.”
“Mr. Secretary I didn’t ask that. I ask, ‘What has happened since Saturday to those 70 children?’”
“Well, I don’t know which 70 children you met with. I can tell you...”
“No, no. I didn’t meet with any of them. I wasn’t allowed to, as you just stated.”
“You are allowed to be in their presence, but you can’t depose them. And that’s...”
“And I understand. So, my question, please, I’m trying to be respectful. My question is, ‘The 70 children who I was told were in that facility that had been separated from their parents, what has happened to them?’”
“They would either continue to be in our care or of if they have reached a point where a sponsor who is in the United States who is a parent or a relative, has been vetted, and has been approved for sponsorship, they would have been released as expeditiously as possible to those sponsors.”
Nelson pressed Azar further about not being able to speak with the staffer at the Homestead facility in charge or family reunification efforts. Azar says that staffer is an employee of the private contractor running the facility and not of his department. So, whether Nelson will get that meeting remains to be seen.