Cantwell Presses HHS Secretary Azar on Family Reunification
Raises case of Ibis Obeida Guzman Colindres, asylum seeker held in SeaTac prison, separated from her son
Washington, D.C. – Today in a Senate Finance Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on the Trump Administration’s family separation immigration policies and asked about the department’s plans for reunifying children with their parents. In her questions, Cantwell raised the case of Ibis Obeida Guzman Colindres, an asylum seeker from Honduras being held at SeaTac prison in Washington state, who has not seen her son in over a month. Oversight of immigrant children separated from their families falls under the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which exists to help assist in the relocation process and provide needed services to individuals granted asylum within the United States.
“I have, in our state, a woman, Ms. Guzman Colindres, who is being held in Washington state,” Senator Cantwell said. “She was from Honduras and was seeking asylum, and now is separated from her child.”
In his response, Secretary Azar committed to Senator Cantwell that he will help all parents and children held separately from each other to communicate.
“We want to make sure that happens,” Secretary Azar said to Senator Cantwell. “We are working with every parent and child, we want them in regular touch, regular communication.”
Senator Cantwell also emphasized the Trump Administration’s role in initiating the family separation policy and how the new policy deviates from previous treatment of asylum seekers in the United States.
“Mr. Azar, I think what you need to hear is that this problem, in her case, Ms. Guzman’s case, didn’t exist prior to this administration changing the law,” Senator Cantwell told Secretary Azar. “We want due process, we want people to be understood, but people seeking asylum should not be treated the same way as some criminal that the President is now talking about incessantly. We want people with criminal backgrounds to be stopped before they even get into the United States. But we want those who are seeking asylum not to end up in a detention center, never to be heard from again.”
The family separation and detention policy adopted by the Trump Administration is not required by U.S. law. Under Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Department of Homeland Security is legally allowed to provide humanitarian parole to asylum seekers awaiting immigration proceedings. In 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sent a memo establishing a humanitarian parole policy for asylum seekers.
Over the past several months, the Trump Administration’s immigration and asylum policies have come under increasing scrutiny as reports of forcible separations of immigrant children from their parents have become more widespread. According to Reuters, nearly 1,800 children were separated from their families between October 2016 and February of 2018; a number of news outlets have put the most recent number above 2,700 children. This includes legal asylum seekers like Ms. Guzman Colindres. The ACLU has also alleged this includes families who requested asylum at legal border crossings. Recently, immigration rights organizations filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration, alleging they had been turning away asylum seekers at the U.S. border, in violation of U.S. and international law.
A transcript of the Q&A is available below.
CANTWELL: I’m sure a more thorny question – I have, in our state, a woman, Ms. Guzman Colindres, who is being held in Washington state. She was from Honduras and was seeking asylum, and now is separated from her child. So, I want to know – I know you’ve had a bunch of questions here already – but what beyond confirming the relationship between child and parent and the criminal check, what else needs to happen for her to be processed?
AZAR: Ok. So in terms of reunifying her with her child?
AZAR: Ok. First off, I want to ensure that she knows where her child is, I want to make sure that she’s in touch and they’re able to communicate. If that’s not happening, please offline let me know and we will, as we are with all of the children and parents, want to make sure that’s happening.
CANTWELL: She has not been able to talk to her child, so I want to make sure that that happens.
AZAR: Ok. We want to make sure that happens. We are working with every parent and child, we want them in regular touch, regular communication. So please, let me know offline, and we’ll get on that and make sure that that’s happening. In terms of reunification, once she’s cleared from a background check perspective, at that point it’s really, if she completes her immigration proceedings, if she’s granted asylum into the United States, then she can be reunified. If she ends up having a deportation order, reunify at that point. The only thing that I can’t do is send the child back to be with her while she’s in a detention facility because of a court order allowing a max of 20 days. Congress could change that, we hope they will, so we could get these kids reunified.
CANTWELL: Mr. Azar, I think what you need to hear is that this problem, in her case, Ms. Guzman’s case, didn’t exist prior to this administration changing the law. In that case, Ms. Guzman, seeking asylum, would have come to our border, asked for asylum, and would have been processed in a way that she was either being able to stay in the community with her child, and not seen as a threat. This administration is turning her into a threat. We want due process, we want people to be understood, but people seeking asylum should not be treated the same way as some criminal that the President is now talking about incessantly. We want people with criminal backgrounds to be stopped before they even get into the United States. But we want those who are seeking asylum not to end up in a detention center, never to be heard from again, or have to be brought up at a hearing as a way to get attention to their case.
AZAR: And if they – I don’t want to speak about her case because I do not know it – but if they present at a lawful border crossing, as opposed to coming illegally into the country, they will not be separated, they will not be arrested, they are not violating the law. So the challenge here is she came in the country illegally, and we have laws, and we’re enforcing laws.
CANTWELL: And I will want to find out, besides doing that background check, and the parentage, how long is it going to take her to have that process? What are the other steps that she will have to take?
AZAR: Those would be the steps we would have to take, but she has to be able to receive the child, and if she is in custody, I cannot legally, because of the 20 day limit, reunite her with her child.
CANTWELL: I’m asking you how long it’s going to take you to do both of those things. So, we’re going to get back to you on both…
AZAR: We can’t – there’s no deadline on it, but as quickly as possible…
CANTWELL: I think that’s what we want…
AZAR: Well the problem is, one has to confirm parentage. I might, if she’s from Honduras, I might have to get a birth certificate from Honduras, perhaps.
CANTWELL: I’m going to talk to you about that too, because I think there’s technology that can help speed up this process.
AZAR: We’d be happy to.
CANTWELL: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
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