The city of Washington has been so dominated with Supreme Court news that it's easy to forget there's other business underway. The House is taking the lead on a lot of it, combing through the second largest spending bill Congress sees every year: the Labor-HHS-Education package. On a typical day, mark-ups like this one don't get a lot of national attention. This time around though, things are different. And a red-hot debate over the border is a big reason why.
There's a lot to unpack about any $177 billion dollar appropriations bill. Democrats, however, will be focused on one thing: family separation and what HHS is doing about it. The president's opponents have been doing their best to keep the issue front and center despite at least two hurdles: 1) President Trump largely ended the practice by executive order earlier this summer and 2) public polling, which shows that most Americans blame the parents – not the White House – for the separations.
Still, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) party vowed to make an issue of it in committee, promising to introduce as many as 50 amendments on the subject. Congressman Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who oversees the Labor-HHS-Education spending, told reporters he was staying the course. As far as he's concerned, the administration hasn't asked for more money to deal with the issue at the border because HHS is appropriately handling it. In an interview with CQ, he said he was "loathe to use the spending process to enact any broad policy overhauls."
And, based on the transparent reporting by HHS, there's no reason for it. When the agency was asked for a status update on reunifying families, the department was blunt. After a court ordered HHS officials to put 102 children back with the parents by July 10, HHS made no apology for taking a thorough and careful approach. By the end of yesterday, 54 kids were expected to be returned to their parent(s). But, HHS pointed out, there are some very real dangers in rushing these children. DNA testing (and the threat of DNA testing) has already outed a number of these “parents” as frauds. Instead, they used these kids to get across the border, putting them in potentially deadly situations.
The circumstances, as the administration has been warning for months, is complicated – to say the least. “We all want the children back with parents,” officials at HHS said, “but we are committed to verification for the safety and welfare of the children.” And despite what the other side would have you believe, that is the compassionate and responsible response. “Among other discoveries,” HHS told reporters, “we have learned that some parents have criminal histories including child abuse and child cruelty, child smuggling, narcotics crimes, robbery convictions, and even an outstanding warrant for murder. Other adults who claimed to be parents are not.”
To protect as many kids as possible, the agency outlined a four-step system that includes vetting (testing for communicable disease, DNA verification, background checks, etc.), transfer to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, preparation and transportation from the children's shelters, and reunification. “Our process may not be as quick as some might like but there is no question that it is protecting children,” said HHS's Chris Meekins. “If we had just reunited kids with the adults, we would be putting them in the care of a rapist, a kidnapper, a child abuser, and someone who was charged with murder in their home nation.”
That doesn't seem to matter to Judge Dana Sabraw, who set the arbitrary timetable from her federal district court in San Diego. “These are firm deadlines,” she said, “they are not aspirational goals.”
No one wants children to be separated from their actual parents, but, as President Trump said yesterday, there is a way to prevent it. “Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That's the solution. Don't come to our country illegally. Come like other people do. Come legally.” When a reporter suggested his response was cruel, the president didn't blink. “I'm saying this, very simply: We have laws. We have borders. Don't come to our country illegally. It's not a good thing.” Certainly for the innocent children involved, he's right.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Family Research Council.