WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Judiciary Committee is demanding answers from federal immigration officials about the Trump administration’s separation of migrant children from their families and its struggle to reunite them, a fraught effort that’s drawn election-year criticism from both parties.
But a hearing scheduled for Tuesday on the topic may have a wider focus after the committee’s bipartisan leaders asked federal investigators to probe reports of sexual and other abuse of immigrants at government detention facilities.
Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and top panel Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California asked late Monday for an examination of alleged sexual, physical and emotional mistreatment of immigrants held at agency facilities, saying the problems may have been occurring since 2014 or earlier.
With President Donald Trump already under fire for taking thousands of migrant children from their detained parents — and botching the reunification of many — the request for the investigation elevated yet another issue to the administration’s list of immigration headaches.
“These allegations of abuse are extremely disturbing and must be addressed,” Grassley and Feinstein wrote in a letter to the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. “This is not a partisan issue as reporting suggests many have been occurring for years. Immigrant families and children kept in federal custody deserve to be treated with basic human dignity and respect and should never be subjected to these forms of abuse.”
Set to testify Tuesday to the Judiciary panel were officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Border Patrol and other agencies.
Trump began a policy of “zero tolerance” this spring, prosecuting all migrants caught entering the U.S. without authorization. To help discourage border crossing, his administration also began separating children from their detained parents, rather than following the policy used by previous administrations, which generally released the entire family pending court action.
Under withering public rejection and criticism from congressional Democrats and Republicans alike, Trump stopped taking children from their parents. But of the more than 2,500 children held, hundreds were not reunited by last week. That includes more than 400 whose parents were deported.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego set a deadline of last Thursday to reunite the families. While he commended administration officials for reuniting many parents in its custody with their children, it faulted them for leaving hundreds of families still apart and warning that a better system must be in place.
Trump seized on the praise, tweeting Monday that “a highly respected Federal judge” had said that the “‘Trump Administration gets great credit’ for reuniting illegal families. Thank you, and please look at the previous administrations record - not good!”
The senators’ letter, based on articles by The Associated Press and other news organizations, says the allegations suggest “a long-term pattern” of mistreatment. Those reports describe claims of abuse from this year dating back to before Trump took office.
The lawmakers want the inspectors general for the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to investigate the abuse allegations immediately and to release any previous investigations into the charges. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services oversee the facilities.
The AP reported last month that children held at an immigration detention facility in Roanoke, Virginia, said they were beaten while handcuffed, locked in solitary confinement and left nude and cold in concrete cells.
A civil rights lawsuit has been filed alleging mistreatment at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center from 2015 to 2018. The alleged victims, Hispanic youths held for months or years, have submitted sworn statements in the case.
Lawyers for the facility have denied the alleged abuse. Many of the children have been accused by immigration officials of belonging to MS-13 and other violent gangs, an activity Trump has used to justify his “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting immigrants caught entering the country without permission.
The senators’ letter also cited a New York Times report this month about two female migrants who described sexual abuse at detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reported 1,310 cases of sexual abuse against detainees from 2013 to 2017, the report said.
A June report by the website Dallas News described alleged sexual abuse at a detention center near Austin, Texas, in 2017. The Arizona Republic reported alleged inappropriate contact involving a teenage boy in 2015 and a girl who accused a staffer of making suggestive comments in 2017 at facilities in Glendale and Tucson, Arizona. The lawmakers’ letter cited those reports as well.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said agency officials perform their duties “professionally and humanely” and that the agency “is abiding by the intent and letter of law and maintains the highest standards care for individuals in our custody.”