House panel requests additional documents on family separation

A House panel is requesting additional documents from the Department of Health and Human Services related to the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that led to the separation of families apprehended along the southern border, after an earlier request went unfulfilled.

“We had hoped the agency would promptly cooperate with our committee as we fulfill our oversight responsibility — but, unfortunately, it appears that’s not going to be the case,” said Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, who heads the panel, in a statement to CNN. “HHS’s refusal to comply with this routine request is just the latest in what seems to be a new trend that’s emerging across the board under this administration.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar last month requesting that he turn over documents related to family separation following a 2017 draft memo released by Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley detailing plans to deter migrants, including the “zero tolerance” policy that all migrant adults crossing the border illegally be prosecuted.

The letter, among other things, requested “documents and communications” between Health and Human Services Department officials on family separation and “all analyses” related to the decision to require all adults in a potential sponsor household to submit fingerprints, a policy that ended in December.

Of the hundreds of pages of documents received, only a fraction were related to family separation — the issue being investigated by the panel. The other documents were “wholly unresponsive,” said Ryan Brown, DeGette’s communications director.

Brown said in an email that HHS “has been asked to immediately provide all of the documents that were requested.”

HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said the agency is “working collaboratively with the committee to produce the documents requested as soon as possible.” She added: “On February 1, HHS provided an initial 792 documents in response to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s requests in their January 18 letter. HHS is committed to making additional document productions on a rolling basis, the next of which is scheduled for this Friday, February 8.”

The controversial “zero tolerance” policy was reversed in a June executive order. Still, an HHS inspector general report released last month found that “thousands” more children had been separated than previously reported by the government.

Since then, the administration has been called to answer to the Health and Human Services IG report by Democrats and plaintiffs who previously sued the administration over the policy. US District Judge Dana Sabraw had ordered the administration to respond to the report as part of an ongoing family separation lawsuit, Ms. L et al. vs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement et al. In its response, the Trump administration defended its efforts to identify and reunify migrant children.

The subcommittee will hold a hearing on family separation Thursday. Azar declined a request to testify.

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.