(CNN) — As lawmakers grilled them at a congressional hearing Tuesday, Trump administration officials defended their efforts to reunite thousands of immigrant families that the government separated.
Asked at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to describe the so-called family residential centers where kids and parents are held, the head of enforcement and removal for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the facilities are “more like a summer camp” than a jail.
“These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water. They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured,” said Matthew Albence, head of enforcement and removal operations for ICE. “There’s basketball courts, there’s exercise classes, there’s soccer fields that we put in there. They have extensive medical, dental and mental health opportunities. In fact, many of these individuals, the first time they’ve ever seen a dentist, is when they’ve come to one of our (family residential) centers.”
Albence noted what he said was the “tremendous effort and success” of family reunifications, and that agency officials had “performed their duties with professionalism, dignity and compassion, despite the myriad false allegations and misinformation that are propagated daily.”
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were sharply critical of the family separations and pressed officials to explain what went wrong.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he was disturbed by reports that parents were deported without their children without understanding paperwork they’d signed.
“The administration claims that all of these parents elected to be deported without their children. But public reports … indicate that many of them may not have made an informed choice to leave their children behind,” Grassley said. “Some of these reports suggest that these parents weren’t presented information in a language that they could even understand. So we ought to be disturbed, and I’m disturbed by these allegations.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, called family separations a “humanitarian disaster” and called for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to step down.
“The family separation policy is more than a bureaucratic lapse in justice,” he said. “It is and was a cruel policy inconsistent with the bedrock values of this nation.”
The hearing comes more than a month after President Donald Trump signed an executive order he said would put a stop to family separations, and days after a court-ordered deadline that spurred a massive effort to reunite more than 2,000 kids with their parents.
A handful of families watched the hearing with young children, some of whom talked and cried as the proceedings continued.
A small group of protesters were escorted from the room after standing up with signs.
Most officials at the hearing avoided specifying what they believed went wrong leading up to family separations. But the Health and Human Services official who led reunification efforts noted a key problem that hindered reunifications.
“The children were separated from their parents and referred to as unaccompanied alien children when they were accompanied,” said Commander Jonathan White, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS.
White also provided an update on the number of children from separated families who remain in custody who haven’t yet been reunited with their parents: 559.
That number includes children whose parents were deported, children whose parents were released into the interior and children who were deemed ineligible for family reunification due to other factors, he said.