screengrab via
Cmdr. Jonathan White of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (screengrab via

WASHINGTON — Before launching its “zero-tolerance” policy in April, the Trump Administration was warned that it could do serious harm to children separated from their parents at the border.

Commander Jonathan White, a Health and Human Services official who led the agency’s family reunification efforts, testified Tuesday that he had raised concerns about the about the “traumatic psychological injury” that separating families at the border could have on children caught up in the program.

“During the deliberative process over the previous year we raised a number of concerns … about any policy that would result in family separation due to concerns we had about the best interest of the child,” White told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing examining the fallout of family separations due to the zero-tolerance policy requiring all unlawful border crossers to be prosecuted.

White’s statement — solicited during questioning by Senator Richard Blumenthal — was significant in that it would seem to belie a Republican talking point that family separations were an unintended result of a the zero-tolerance policy.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in his opening remarks at the hearing that family separation was an “unintended” consequence of a “well intentioned” policy.

Blumenthal claimed family separation was, rather, an intended consequence of the zero-tolerance policy and was done to inflict harm as a way of deterring asylum seekers from crossing the Mexican border unlawfully. The fact that the administration was warned, he said, makes clear it was not unintended.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued the zero-tolerance policy in April. President Donald Trump ended it in June after public outcry.

As a result of the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy more than 2,500 illegal immigrant children were separated from their parents. As of last Thursday, 1,442 of those children have been reunited directly with their parents. An additional 378 have been released to other individuals under appropriate circumstances. But, almost one third of the children — approximately 711 — are still in government custody and are unable to be reunited with their parents, Grassley said.

Blumenthal was among the last members of the Judiciary Committee to question witnesses at the hearing on Tuesday when he asked if any of them had raised concerns that the zero-tolerance policy was “maybe not such a good idea.”

After a brief silence, Blumenthal turned to White for a response. White explained that he had raised concerns which Blumenthal then boiled down into layman’s terms.

“You told the administration that kids would suffer as a result. That pain would be inflicted. Correct?” Blumenthal asked.

“Separation of children from their parents entails significant risk of harm to children,” White agreed.

“Well, it is traumatic for any child to be separated from his or her parents. Am I correct? I say that as a parent of four children,” Blumenthal asked again.

“There is no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” White said.

White, however, said that he believes the children separated from their parents are receiving sufficient care in U.S. custody, noting that each has a mental health clinician assigned to them.

Watch the hearing here. Blumenthal’s segment begins about 3:14:00.

And for more coverage, read Bloomberg’s report here.


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