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New Details on Family Separations Fuel Emotional Hearing


WASHINGTON — At least 18 infants and toddlers younger than 2 years old were separated from their parents for at least 20 days because of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the southwestern border, according to a report released on Friday by a House committee.

Those findings were gleaned from records that the House Oversight and Reform Committee obtained under subpoena on at least 2,648 children who were separated from their families, the youngest being just 4 months old.

Some of the children were kept apart for as long as six months and 241 of the children were kept in Border Patrol custody longer than 72 hours, some as long as a week. Under federal regulations, migrant children must be transferred to shelters managed by the Department of Health and Human Services after three days in Border Patrol custody.

“My hope is that we can all agree on several basic points,” Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the committee chairman, said on Friday. “Anyone in the custody of our government — especially a child — must be treated humanely and with respect.”

“This is our watch,” he added.

The report was made public Friday before a heated House oversight hearing on the administration’s family separation policy. Lawmakers heard from a handful of their colleagues, and multiple immigration lawyers and officials, including Thomas D. Homan, the former acting head of Immigration Customs and Enforcement, and Jennifer L. Costello, the acting inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security.

The findings set the tone for the hearing: More than 50 children were held in shelters for six months to a year, and more than 20 were held for more than a year. Separated children were held in the shelters for an average of 90 days compared with unaccompanied children who were held for an average of 60 days, according to the report.

Republican staff members on the committee argued that much of the data had been taken out of context and that “this report is political — not serious oversight.”

But witnesses who testified agreed that problems with the separation policy linger. During her opening remarks, Ms. Costello, the acting inspector general, told lawmakers that she remained concerned that officials were “not taking sufficient steps to address the overcrowding” in detention centers.

Elora Mukherjee, the director of Columbia Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic and a lawyer who visited the detention facility last month in Clint, Tex., described comforting a 6-year-old boy who had been separated from his family. He is “a child, the same age as my son, stuck in a hellhole,” she said, growing emotional.

But Mr. Homan, a supporter of the administration’s policies who frequently appears on Fox News, said “Border Patrol and ICE are merely enforcing the laws enacted by Congress.”

“They are doing the best they can under the circumstances,” he added. Pressed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, he acknowledged that at one point he had recommended the zero-tolerance policy.

Lawmakers on the committee also heard from a handful of their colleagues who have visited the southwestern border or represent districts in border states. It was a wrenching round of testimony: Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, teared up as she described the notes she exchanged with a boy in the Clint detention facility. Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, slammed shut the case of his iPad after railing against the lack of action taken by Congress on immigration.

And Ms. Ocasio-Cortez took the unusual step of being sworn in under oath before detailing what she had seen on the border, to counter Republicans who said she was misrepresenting the conditions in Border Patrol facilities.

One thing was clear despite lawmakers’ diametrically opposite views of administration policy: They agreed that some legislative action was needed to improve the nation’s immigration system.

“Have you ever seen a movie where they have parallel universes?” said Representative Debbie Lesko, Republican of Arizona, who swiped at Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic lawmakers for speaking at the hearing, but not representing states along the border. “That’s what I feel like we’re in, quite honestly.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez noted that “it feels like we’re speaking in two different worlds.” Like her colleagues, Ms. Tlaib and Representative Ayanna S. Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, she argued that sharing the stories of the migrants in detention centers would counter the administration’s perspective.

Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas, the one Democrat representing the border, said her city of El Paso was a “modern day Ellis Island,” where the community responded compassionately to the influx of migrants.

“It’s urgent for us,” Mr. Cummings said as the hearing continued late Friday afternoon, when members traditionally would have already left for their districts. “We’re looking for solutions, and sometimes to get to solutions, you have to have accountability, you have to have pressure. We want to see something get done.”


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