Trump administration offers few details on the fate of over 2,000 children separated from parents

Key Points
  • More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border between May 5 and June 9, DHS officials said Tuesday.
  • Officials did not know how many of those children had been reunited with their parents.
  • There is currently no uniform standard to determine whether children are too young to separate from their mothers.
Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
Getty Images

More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border between May 5 and June 9, an official with the Department of Homeland Security told reporters on Tuesday, and more than 2,200 adults who were traveling with those children were referred for prosecution.

Officials did not know how many of those children had been reunited with their parents, however, or how many of these children had been placed in foster care.

Reunification figures were one of several types of data that Trump administration officials were as yet unable to provide during a conference call with journalists on Tuesday morning about the recent spike in separations of immigrant children from their parents.

Other unanswered questions included what standards are being applied to determine whether to separate very young children from their mothers. Another was what concrete plans are currently in place to expand capacity at the Department of Health and Human Services to accommodate more families that are separated.

Officials stressed that under current rules, children detained by DHS must be turned over to HHS custody within 72 hours, meaning most of the more than 2,000 minors detained in the past month.

Officials said the children are currently being held in HHS facilities in 17 states, but did not list which states.

A fourth outstanding question was when the agency will release new footage of detained children, particularly girls and very young children. Reporters have been prohibited from filming or photographing inside the detention centers. One official said new images could be coming within the "next few days."

The family separations have quickly ballooned into a full-blown crisis for the White House in the past week, as Republican lawmakers, prominent religious leaders, business groups and other traditional GOP allies have demanded an end to the policy.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has simultaneously taken credit for, and blamed Democrats for, his newly implemented "zero tolerance" policy, whereby border patrol agents are directed to arrest and detain all adults attempting to cross the border outside of designated ports of entry. This includes migrants seeking asylum and those traveling with children, which represents a shift in policy from previous administrations.

Details about the fate of the children separated from their parents were hard to come by on Tuesday.

"We don't know how many of the kids have been placed with foster care or reunified with parents. This policy is relatively new," said Steve Wagner, acting assistant secretary at the Health and Human Services Department.

Wagner also stressed that children are being provided with medical care, food, toys and mental health services. Only teenagers, he said, are being housed in tents, and not younger children.

"We don't have a time limit in terms of days" that minors can be held by HHS. "When kids leave our care, they've received a notice to appear at immigration court," Wagner said.

As of Tuesday, there was no uniform policy in place for determining at what age children are old enough to be separated from their mothers, said Brian Hastings, an official with Customs and Border Patrol. "There is discretion given to the field chiefs in the field," he said, and decisions for children under the age of 5 were being made on a case-by-case basis.

Overall, it was clear that officials were struggling to respond to the current situation, which is straining resources across several agencies.

"We are staying one step ahead of the need," said Wagner of HHS, "and we expect that the new policy will result in a deterrence effect."

Underscoring the confusion, however, is that Trump administration officials, including DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as recently as Monday, have denied both that there is any "new policy" or that such a policy is intended to have a deterrent effect.

CNBC attempted to reach Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday for comment on what appeared to be conflicting messages coming out of the two federal agencies. A spokesman did not immediately respond to a call or email from CNBC.

In the meantime, Wagner said: "We are prepared to continue to expand capacity as needed. We hope that that will not be necessary in the future."