House panel demands answers from admin on ‘zero tolerance' policy

Letter cites 2017 draft memo

By PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN
Copyright 2018 CNN

(CNN) - A House panel sent a letter Friday to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar requesting he turn over documents related to the administration's "zero-tolerance" policy that led to the separation of families apprehended along the southern border.

The letter from the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations comes less than a day after a 2017 draft memo released by Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley detailing plans to deter migrants, including the "zero-tolerance" policy. The memo details plans to separate families months before the "zero-tolerance" policy was announced by the administration.

The controversial policy was eventually reversed in a June executive order. Still, a new inspector general report released Thursday found that "thousands" more children had been separated than previously reported by the government.

More than 2,600 children were separated from their parents at the border from April 19 to May 31, after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against all migrants who crossed the border unlawfully. Once all migrants who crossed the border illegally were treated as criminals, that meant parents could no longer be held in federal detention facilities with their children because federal law prevents children from being held with adults in detention facilities.

The letter concludes a week of back-to-back revelations about the administration's policy that led to the separation of families. It's yet another example of how House Democrats intend to hold Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security accountable.

The panel -- headed by Rep. Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado -- has oversight authority over the Department of Health and Human Services among other agencies.

DeGette is expected to hold a hearing soon focusing on the policy and its beginnings.

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