The Trump administration's former refugee director Tuesday told Congress he never passed along warnings to higher-ups that separating migrant families at the border could have long-lasting damaging health effects on children.
Scott Lloyd, during his first congressional testimony since the controversy over family separations blew up last summer, said he never relayed health concerns a career official raised to him long before the Trump administration began separating thousands of kids at the border.
Lloyd largely defended his efforts leading the refugee office while repeatedly dodging questions, angering Democrats who are pushing to hold Trump officials accountable for family separations.
Lloyd, who has been blamed for mismanaging efforts to reunite the families last summer, is a top target of House Democrats' sprawling investigation into the now-defunct border policy. Lloyd's testimony to the House Judiciary Committee broke months of silence on his controversial tenure atop the HHS refugee office overseeing care for migrant children. Before the separation crisis, Lloyd was widely criticized by Democrats over his efforts to block teenage girls in government custody from obtaining abortions.
Jonathan White, a career HHS official helping to lead reunification efforts, earlier this month testified that he raised the issue of health effects with Lloyd and other political appointees in early 2017, more than a year before the Trump administration formally announced the separation policy. Under intense questioning from Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Lloyd said he never conveyed those concerns to anyone else.
"Did you ever say to the administration, this is a bad idea, this is what my child welfare experts have told us, we need to stop this policy? Did you once say that to anybody above you?" Jayapal said.
"To answer your last question, I did not say those words," Lloyd said.
Lloyd struggled to explain when — or if — he raised concerns about tracking thousands of children who had been separated at the border. An internal HHS audit last month concluded that the Trump administration lacked an integrated system to track the families until after a federal judge in June 2018 ordered the reunifications.
Lloyd disputed a question from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas.) about when the HHS refugee office, which cares for migrant children, first noticed there wasn't a comprehensive tracking system. However, he testified in his opening statement that the refugee office in summer 2018 added tracking "to indicate whether a child has been separated from his or her parent." That was months after the Trump administration began separating families at the border.
Lloyd also disputed a claim, first reported by POLITICO, that he directed staff to stop keeping an informal spreadsheet tracking separated families before the administration had formally announced the "zero tolerance" border policy.
As part of an HHS review last year, refugee office staff told officials that Lloyd instructed them to stop keeping the spreadsheet once the family separation issue began attracting media attention, three individuals with knowledge of the operation told POLITICO. HHS did not respond to questions about whether Lloyd discouraged efforts to track separated families.
Lloyd was effectively removed from leading the refugee office in the midst of the crisis. In November, he was formally transferred to the HHS office for faith initiatives
White, the career HHS official, said he repeatedly warned Lloyd and two other officials about the health effects of family separations, beginning when the policy was first internally discussed in early 2017. White, who also testified Tuesday, said that Lloyd assured him at the time the administration would not enact the policy. However, separations began months later, and the policy wasn't formally announced until April 2018. It was abandoned about 10 weeks later amid intense public backlash.
Public health experts have warned that the forcible family separations likely caused lasting trauma to the children.
“[A]dverse childhood experiences created by inhumane treatment often create negative health impacts that can last an individual’s entire lifespan," James Madara, the CEO of the American Medical Association, warned the Trump administration after the policy was implemented last year.
Meanwhile, Lloyd denied that he'd personally visited any teenage girls in his office's custody to discourage them from obtaining an abortion. However, that claim appears to contradict emails Lloyd sent, which were obtained in an ACLU lawsuit that's still pending.
For instance, in a March 2017 email, Lloyd described a trip to a Texas shelter and referenced his conversation with one pregnant teenager. "As I've said, often these girls start to regret abortion," Lloyd wrote to colleagues.
Lloyd at first dodged questions about whether he tracked menstrual cycles of girls in the refugee office's custody, as he had testified in a December 2017 depositiontied to the ACLU lawsuit. At the time, Lloyd said he asked for weekly updates of pregnant minors, which included their last menstruation date.
"I don’t have a yes or no answer to that question," he said Tuesday in response to a question from Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) about whether he monitored that information. After further questioning, Lloyd said his office did create a pregnancy tracker.
Democrats criticized Lloyd as uncooperative, and some afterwards questioned his credibility.
"I've been a judge and [held] a lot of hearings," Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) said. "He was evasive and couldn't answer basic questions."
Republican committee members, meanwhile, avoided questioning Lloyd about his stewardship of the refugee office. GOP members instead spent much of the hearing focused on broader issues of border security and whether immigration policies should be revisited.
Four separate House panels are continuing probes into family separations. On Tuesday morning,the House Oversight Committee approved subpoenas to get records on the border separation policy from Cabinet agencies.
"When a stranger rips a child from a parent’s arms without any plan to reunify them, it is called kidnapping," Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the Judiciarycommittee's chair, said. "We must have a full accounting of which officials were responsible for directing and planning this shameful policy of kidnapping."