A senior official from the Department of Health and Human Services told the Senate Wednesday that HHS doesn’t bother to check if family members taking temporary custody of illegal immigrant children are illegal immigrants themselves.

Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, admitted that HHS does not consider who the department allows to take custody of illegal immigrant children while they await a deportation hearing.

Tom Coburn illegal immigration HHS Department of Health and Human Services border patrol

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was told Wednesday that officials don’t check the legal status of people taking custody of illegal immigrant children. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

He was pressed in a Senate hearing by Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on why that is the case. Coburn speculated that giving illegal immigrant children over to illegal immigrant family members would probably reduce the chances that the child ever shows up for a deportation hearing.

“Why would they expose themselves in front of an immigration judge?” Coburn asked. Earlier in the hearing, another official said that only about 3 percent of the thousands of children from Central American that have crossed over the southern U.S. border have been deported so far this year.

Coburn started by asking Greenberg whether HHS verifies the immigration status of the families that are allowed to pick up illegal immigrant children from HHS’s care.

“We do not verify the immigration status of the individual,” he answered. “Our focus in the release is first identifying the least restrictive setting in the child’s best interest.”

Greenberg repeatedly declined to answer Coburn’s question about whether he thinks illegal immigrant parents would be less likely to bring the child back to a deportation hearing.

“This is about who child should live with while they’re awaiting the removal proceedings and during the removal proceedings,” Greenberg said after several attempts by Coburn.

Coburn then asked why HHS doesn’t ask about the legal status of family members, but Greenberg declined to answer that as well.

“For us, the focus needs to be on a safe and appropriate placement for the child,” Greenberg said. When Coburn tried again, Greenberg said, “Even if we had the information as to the parent or other relatives’ immigration status, we would still at that point need to look at the totality of the circumstances.”

Finally, Coburn asked if it is the policy of HHS not to ask the status of family members taking custody of illegal immigrant children. After a few attempts, Greenberg said, “Yes, that is the case.”

Earlier in their discussion, Greenberg said HHS does not play a role in making sure the child is brought back for his or her deportation hearing. On that issue, the Department of Justice has responsibility.

Coburn also used the hearing to get border officials to confirm that border officers are allowed to talk with members of Congress, after recent reports that they have been told to say nothing to members. Coburn asked Craig Fugate of FEMA, Gil Kerlikowske of CBP, and Thomas Winkowski of ICE whether border agents can talk with members, and they all answered “yes.”

In response, Coburn asked all three officials to make sure that answer is understood down the chain of command.

Other officials told senators Wednesday that there are now more than 57,000 unaccompanied children who have tried to cross into the U.S. so far this fiscal year.

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