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HHS official says agency would never have supported family separation tactics

A senior Department of Health and Human Services official told lawmakers on Thursday that neither he nor anyone at the agency responsible for care of unaccompanied migrant children would "ever" have supported the government policy that led to family separations.

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A senior Department of Health and Human Services official told lawmakers on Thursday that neither he nor anyone at the agency responsible for care of unaccompanied migrant children would "ever" have supported the government policy that led to family separations.

"I do not believe that separation of children from their parents is in the best interest of the child," Commander Jonathan White told a House oversight subcommittee.

"Neither I nor any career person in (the Office of Refugee Resettlement) would ever have supported such a policy proposal," he said, drawing a clear distinction between his agency, which is tasked with caring and placing unaccompanied children with sponsors in the United States, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Thursday's hearing on the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy on illegal immigration that resulted in thousands of children being separated from their families is one of the first displays of the oversight power House Democrats now hold.

family separation lavandera © CNN family separation lavandera "To be clear, what happened to these children should never happen in this country," said subcommittee Chairwoman Dianna DeGette, D-Colorado. "On behalf of the American people, we are here today to understand exactly what happened, why it happened, and what needs to make sure that -- be done to make sure that it never happens again."

The hearing comes after a Health and Human Services inspector general report, released in January, found that thousands more children had been separated than had been reported by the government. The separations occurred before the "zero tolerance" policy, which led to family separations, was announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018. HHS had previously identified 2,737 children who were separated from their parents.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar, however, declined a request to testify, angering Democrats.

"I'm sorry Secretary Azar is passing the buck to you," DeGette told White. Azar has pledged to testify before the Energy and Commerce Committee in the coming weeks regarding the President's proposed budget.

DeGette's committee, which has oversight over HHS, asked for documents related to family separation last month. They received hundreds of pages of documents, but those fell short of fulfilling the initial request, according to Ryan Brown, DeGette's communications director. HHS has agreed to provide additional documents by this Friday.

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