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WASHINGTON — A House committee voted Tuesday to subpoena Trump administration officials over family separations at the southern border, the first issued in the new Congress as Democrats have promised to hold the administration aggressively to count.
The decision by the Oversight Committee will compel the heads of Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to deliver documents to lawmakers.
The committee's chairman, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, has pledged to press the administration for documents and testimony on a wide swath of issues, but family separation was among his first priorities.
"I believe this is a true national emergency," Cummings said. "When our own government rips children from the arms of their mothers and fathers with no plans to reunite them — that is government-sponsored child abuse."
Cummings said committee members have been seeking the documents for seven months.
The Oversight Committee is seeking details on the children separated, location and facilities where they were held, details on their parents, information on efforts to restore children to their parents and whether parents were deported.
However, the subpoenas only ask for the accounting of children separated under zero tolerance, which lasted from May to late June 2018, and do not include the potentially thousands of others separated prior. Most of these zero tolerance children have already been reunified or released to sponsors per court order.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the committee's ranking Republican, sent Cummings a letter arguing that the subpoenas would not be necessary, and that the administration had produced hundreds of pages of documents in response to earlier requests for information.
"We should not rush to compel documents from the departments, especially when they have sought to comply with your request voluntarily," Jordan wrote.
Other Republicans said the committee should go through the paperwork they have on hand before deciding whether the agencies haven't complied with the request, and ask for data related to separations under the Obama administration. But two voted to issue the subpoenas.
Cummings said the documents already submitted to the committee were vastly incomplete.
"The information we got was not one name, not one number," Cummings said. "Zilch."
The House Judiciary Committee authorized a subpoena to compel then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to testify if necessary, but it was never served.
If any officials don't comply with new subpoenas, the committee and eventually the full House could vote to hold the department in contempt, setting up a potentially lengthy court battle.
More than 2,800 children were separated from their parents at the border last year under the zero-tolerance immigration policy imposed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that criminally prosecuted anyone caught crossing the border illegally.
Because children can't be placed with their parents in jail, they were separated. Watchdog reports have found the administration was not prepared to manage the aftermath of the separations, and had no way to track the families and did not have a way to reunite them until a federal judge stepped in.
One watchdog report from the Health and Human Services Inspector General recently found that thousands more children than previously thought may have been separated before the zero-tolerance policy officially began. Immigration officials are allowed to separate children if there is a concern for the child's well-being, if a parent has a criminal charge or if there are serious health risks.
Under a federal court order, Health and Human Services has released 2,735 out of the 2,816 children who were separated from their parents under the zero tolerance policy in May and June 2018. Most of those children, 2,155, were reunited with their parents while others were sent to live with sponsors or turned 18.
However, Justice Department lawyers have recently argued in the same court case that it would be overly burdensome to reunite the potentially thousands of children separated before zero tolerance went into effect. The HHS report estimated that thousands of immigrant children were separated prior to zero tolerance, due to a covert pilot program run by DHS in El Paso beginning in July 2017.
Justice Department lawyer Scott Stewart argued before Judge Dana Sabraw in the Southern District of California last week that finding and reuniting children separated from their parents prior to zero tolerance "dramatically changes the complexity of this case from the government's perspective."
Sabraw, who is still considering whether to order the government to reunited children separated prior to zero tolerance, told Stewart, “It’s important to recognize we are talking about human beings.”