WASHINGTON — Democrats grilled HHS Secretary Alex Azar regarding what he knew, and when, about the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on family separations, during a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education hearing on Wednesday afternoon.
In her opening statement, Chairwoman Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) suggested that the separations at the U.S./Mexico border may have started roughly a year before the policy was publicly announced — as reported by the Office of the Inspector General in January — and that thousands more children may have been separated than previously realized.
“We have to understand how this happened, why it happened, who is responsible? Is it happening now? … How do we stop this?” DeLauro said.
During the hearing, DeLauro asked Azar when he “personally learned” that the Department of Homeland Security was implementing a policy of family separation.
“I learned, when others did, in April when the Attorney General announced that he was going to pursue zero tolerance … and then when the Attorney General announced on May 7 that he was implementing zero tolerance and the 100% referral policy, around that time, I would have been aware of those. But in all candor … I did not connect the dots, at that point, to the full implications and operational challenges … in terms of children for our program,” Azar said.
DeLauro also asked the secretary when he learned that Cmdr. Jonathan White, a career Public Health Service officer who previously served as the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) deputy director, had warned other members of ORR including Scott Lloyd, Steve Wagner, and Maggie Wynne that “capacity issues would become a problem if DHS moved forward with family separation.”
DeLauro noted that White expressed concern to leadership at ORR as early as March 2017 of what appeared to be a looming crisis.
(White testified during a hearing before a different House subcommittee in February that he had observed an increase in the number of children being brought into ORR’s custody in 2017 and that when he warned Scott Lloyd, ORR director, and his colleagues, White said he was told that a “family separation [policy] wasn’t going to happen.”)
Azar said he learned of those conversations “about when you did … essentially when they would have come out in the course of testimony.”
DeLauro also asked whether Lloyd, Wagner, and Wynne remain in senior positions at HHS.
Azar acknowledged that they are still employed by HHS, “but none of them are directly in the ORR program anymore.”
Throughout this inquiry, Azar stressed that HHS was “on the receiving end [of the problem]; we didn’t decide the policy.”
“DHS was separating children long before they announced it as a form of policy. If senior officials at HHS didn’t push back on Homeland Security, despite warnings from ORR career officials, then they were complicit in what was an illegal, immoral family separation. It is your job to hold these people accountable, and it is my job, it’s our job, to hold you accountable,” DeLauro said.
Asked whether HHS was now “pushing back” on DHS in cases where children are referred to the agency without providing a reason for being separated, Azar said the agency was requesting “enhanced information from DHS.”
Regarding the budget proposal, DeLauro pointed out that while the official budget proposal calls for $1.3 billion, Azar, a week earlier, had told the committee he intended to move another $385 million from other parts of the budget, “in essence robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
DeLauro said she planned to flat-out reject a 20% increase in transfer authority: “Let me be crystal clear, Mr. Secretary, not on my watch.”
DeLauro also asked the Secretary whether the agency would be raising “permanent bed capacity” in order to move children out of unlicensed temporary shelters that are three times as expensive.
Azar confirmed that the agency is increasing such capacity, “and I would appreciate you actually supporting and helping in that effort.”
DeLauro said she would be happy to help.
Asked by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) whether, in his role as head of a health agency, Azar raised “red flags” about the potential trauma to children, including “DNA changes” that could occur because of separation.
Azar responded: “There’s no dispute between us that children being away from their parents is a bad thing, that it imposes mental health issues … that’s why we encouraged people ‘Do not come across the border illegally at non-border crossings, because you’re going to be arrested.'”