Democrats Issue Subpoenas on Trump’s Migrant Family Separations

WASHINGTON — House Democrats issued subpoenas late Tuesday to three cabinet officials, in a sharp escalation of their battle over the administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the southern border.

Administration officials did not immediately say if the cabinet officials — the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen; the attorney general, William P. Barr; and the health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II — would comply. But Ms. Nielsen has previously refused to appear before the House Homeland Security committee to answer similar inquiries, and the Justice Department suggested Mr. Barr would not turn over documents requested by the committee.

Earlier in the day, the House Oversight and Reform Committee easily passed a measure authorizing the subpoenas that called for the officials to turn over documents pertaining to the detention policies, as two Republicans — Representative Justin Amash of Michigan and Representative Chip Roy of Texas — voted with Democrats to authorize the subpoenas. Moments later, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on a child separation policy that the panel’s Democratic chairman, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, described as “indefensible,” “inhumane” and “immoral” in his opening statement.

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Mr. Nadler and other Democrats complained about the pace and quality of the data administration officials had provided them before the hearings. On Monday night, administration officials sent a trove of data that committee Democrats had requested months earlier, including a report documenting hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse reported by minors at detention facilities over the past several years.

More than 2,700 children were separated from their parents at the border under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting anyone caught crossing the border illegally, even those with families seeking asylum on humanitarian grounds.

The subpoenas are part of a larger effort, led by Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the oversight panel, and other Democratic committee chairmen to compel public testimony on a range of issues from officials with the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Health and Human Services.

While the subpoenas do not initially call for the secretaries to testify, congressional aides said they had not ruled out that possibility.

Caitlin B. Oakley, a spokeswoman for Mr. Azar, would not say if he intended to comply. The Health and Human Services Department “understands and appreciates the important role of congressional oversight,” she said in a statement.

Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for Mr. Barr, suggested the committee should receive the documents from the other two departments. “The documents requested by the House Oversight Committee should be obtained from the originating agencies — here, H.H.S. and D.H.S,” she said, referring to the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. “The Department of Justice is currently representing H.H.S. and D.H.S. in litigation and the information requested was obtained in the course of that representation.”

Aides to Ms. Nielsen did not immediately return requests for comment.

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the committee’s top Republican, asked Mr. Cummings in a letter this week to reconsider the wide issuance of subpoenas.

The Trump policy of prosecuting all adults crossing the border led to the practice of separating families and caring for the children in licensed facilities while trying to place them with a relative, because a previous court settlement had restricted the detention of children. The Department of Homeland Security struggled to track families and their children after the policy was put in place last spring — and did not create a comprehensive family reunification policy until a federal judge intervened.

Mr. Trump eventually relented on the family separations, and a federal judge in California halted them in June. But in January, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services reported that thousands more families might have been separated than previously reported.

Democrats, whose questions were largely ignored by the administration before they took control of the House in January, leveled their sharpest questions on Tuesday at Scott Lloyd, who until recently oversaw the Department of Health and Human Services’ refugee resettlement program, which oversees the carrying out of the policy.

Mr. Lloyd spoke so softly that committee members craned over the rostrum to hear his answers. He struggled to explain why his agency initially failed to track migrant families separated as part of the policy.

When Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, asked about a report that Mr. Lloyd had instructed department staff members to stop maintaining a database used to track separated children and families, Mr. Lloyd responded by saying the report was “incorrect,” but offered no further explanation.

In prepared remarks, Mr. Lloyd, an anti-abortion activist who had no prior experience administering refugee programs before being placed in his former post, laid some of the blame on the Homeland Security Department, saying that “D.H.S. had not consistently adhered” to “processes” used to identify and track migrant families.

Sitting next to Mr. Lloyd at the witness table was Cmdr. Jonathan White of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a career federal official who repeatedly warned him last year that the family separation policy could cause permanent trauma to young children.

Commander White said that he raised his opposition to the policy “in every conversation we had about family separation” and that he “raised those concerns” with Mr. Lloyd’s staff and other top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services last summer, when detention facilities were overwhelmed by families detained at the border.

Research showed that the policy “had very significant and lifelong psychological impacts” on the children who were detained, he added.

In an extraordinary exchange, Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, asked Mr. Lloyd if he had heeded Commander White’s warnings by intensifying efforts to create a comprehensive plan for tracking and reuniting families.

“I did not direct anybody to not plan,” Mr. Lloyd responded.

When Ms. Jayapal asked him if he informed “anyone above you” that the detention policy could harm children, Mr. Lloyd replied, “I did not.”

In another heated exchange, Commander White bristled when Representative Ted Deutch, Democrat of Florida, sharply questioned him about new data, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services to the committee late Monday, that documented thousands of allegations of sexual abuse at detention facilities overseen by the department.

The report, compiled by the Justice Department, showed that there were 1,226 allegations of sexual abuse made to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services in 2018, which was largely in keeping with the number of reports filed in the previous three years; 348 of them were deemed serious enough to warrant a Justice Department investigation. Fifty-six involved staff members at detention centers.

“That is false!” Commander White shouted, as Mr. Deutch read the numbers.

Later, he apologized for his outburst and said that the “vast majority of allegations proved to be unfounded” and that he was not aware of any accusations against staff members that were found to have merit.