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Sen. Jeff Flake seeking info on separation of asylum-seeking families

Nicole Hernandez, of the Mexican state of Guerrero, holds on to her mother as they wait with other families to request political asylum in the United States, across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

PHOENIX — U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) sent a letter Saturday to the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary about the procedures and protocols surrounding the separation of immigrant families lawfully seeking asylum.

In the letter to Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secretary Alex Azar, Flake and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) requested information whether children are separated from their parents when families seek asylum at a legal port of entry, how many children have been separated from their families while seeking asylum and how long those separations last.

Flake and Collins also sought information on the policy or “legal theory” that justifies those separations, whether the separations are meant to deter people from seeking asylum, the procedures for processing asylum applications, whether there are procedures to reunite families and whether there are training protocols for those who deal with separated children.

“Ensuring the safety and security of young children is a longstanding priority of the American legal system. In asylum cases, it is especially important to keep families together when neither the child nor the parent has violated any laws,” Flake said in a statement.

“Contrary to what DHS has indicated as proper procedure, we are currently seeing cases where immigrant families seeking asylum are separated after lawfully presenting themselves at a U.S. port of entry. I believe DHS ought to respond to valid questions concerning asylum processing, including any policies pertaining to the separation of families.”

The inquiry came to light shortly after it was reported by The Associated Press that nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May.

The separations came after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy that refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution.

U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.

The senators pointed to two accounts in their letter that they said concerned them: One when a Honduran mother seeking asylum in Texas was separated from her 18-month-old child for months and another when a Congolese mother was separated from her six-year-old daughter for more than four months.

“It is critical that Congress fully understands how our nation’s laws are being implemented on the ground, especially when the well-being of young children is at stake,” the senators wrote.

Trump plans to meet with House Republicans on Tuesday to discuss pending immigration legislation amid an election-season debate over an issue that helped vault the New York real estate mogul into the Oval Office in 2016.

The House is expected to vote this week on a bill pushed by conservatives that may not have enough support to pass, and a compromise measure that the White House has endorsed.

Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, rejected the idea that Trump was using the kids as leverage to force Democrats to negotiate on immigration and his long-promised border wall, even after Trump tweeted Saturday: “Democrats can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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