Federal authorities have been unable to reconnect all children separated from their parents at the border because some of those parents may have already been deported with their kids remaining behind in U.S. custody, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson’s staff said on Tuesday.
Eight children now held at a South Dade migrant shelter haven’t been able to contact their parents, Nelson said.
Nelson said Barbara Flotus, the Homestead migrant shelter employee in charge of getting the children in touch with their parents, has been able to put 62 of the 70 children in touch with their parents.
Nelson's office said Health and Human Services officials told them that the reason eight children have not been in contact with their parents is because HHS has been unable to locate the parents, possibly because the adults have been deported.
Of the parents reached, 60 of them have requested their child be placed with sponsors or relatives in the U.S. while two have requested their child be sent back to their home country, Nelson said.
HHS spokesperson Kenneth Wolfe did not confirm how many children at Homestead have been unable to reach their parents.
"Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of unaccompanied alien children, and we are working toward that for those unaccompanied alien children currently in our custody," Wolfe said in a email.
Nelson questioned HHS Secretary Alex Azar about the children separated from their parents t the border during congressional hearing on Tuesday.
"How many of those children have been able to be in contact by telephone with their parents from whom they were separated?" Nelson asked at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.
"For any of them who have been separated from their parents at the time of the parents' detention by CBP (border patrol), within 2 hours of arriving at an ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) shelter, we endeavor to put them in touch, get them on the phone with their parents," Azar said. "Sometimes that can't happen, if for instance the parent has been located for criminal prosecution."
The Trump administration's decision to reopen a Homestead facility that once housed unaccompanied minors who tried to cross the border illegally during the Obama administration set off a spate of protests over the weekend, as lawmakers from both parties demanded an end to the Trump administration's practice that led to about 2,300 children being separated from their families.
Azar also told Nelson during the hearing that he should have been allowed to speak with the children at Homestead when he visited on Saturday. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who visited the facility on Friday, also was not allowed to speak with the children.
Congress is under pressure to pass a bill that would allow families to be detained together if they cross the border illegally, since current law prevents the Department of Homeland Security from holding a child for more than 20 days. Democrats, including Nelson, are trying to pass a bill that bans family separation as a way to deter illegal immigration while Republicans, including Rubio, are trying to pass a bill that allows families to be detained together.
"So what is the plan to reunite 2,300 children?" Nelson asked Azar.
"We're not allowed to have a child be with a parent who is in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security for more than 20 days, and so until we can get Congress to change that law...we'll hold them or place them with another family relative in the United States," Azar said.
Nelson, a Democrat who is running for reelection against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, said the Trump administration's response to his efforts to gain access and answers about the Homestead facility is based on partisan politics.
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.