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HHS creates task force to reunify migrant families

Tent shelters housing separated migrant family members sit near the border in Fabens, Texas, on Friday. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order halting family separations, telling reporters that “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.” | Matt York/AP Photo

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HHS on Friday created an “unaccompanied children reunification task force,” a first step toward reunifying thousands of migrant children in the agency’s custody with their families, according to an internal document obtained by POLITICO.

The task force was established by the assistant secretary for preparedness and response — the arm of the agency that responds to public health disasters, and an indication that the challenge of reunifying thousands of families is likely beyond the capabilities of the refugee office.

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“The Secretary of Health and Human Services has directed the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response assist the ACF Office of Refugee Resettlement with Unaccompanied Children Reunification,” the order reads. The agency’s Emergency Management Group, which operates out of the HHS secretary’s operations center, also was activated.

“Secretary [Alex] Azar is bringing to bear all the relevant resources of the department in order to assist in the reunification or placement of unaccompanied alien children and teenagers with a parent or appropriate sponsor,” HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer told POLITICO on Friday night. She said the preparedness and response office will apply its “operational and logistical expertise in addressing this complex effort. The Office of Refugee Resettlement continues to oversee and manage the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program.”

An agent is pictured at the exterior gate of a holding facility. | AP Photo

The emergency response team typically is deployed for crises like hurricanes and viral epidemics — a sign that the agency is approaching reunifying families and accompanying health challenges akin to a public health disaster.

Running the response through the secretary’s operation center also will allow HHS to more easily pull resources and coordinate among agencies.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order halting family separations, telling reporters that “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”

But questions have swirled over whether HHS is prepared to reunite around 2,300 children with their families, and whether the department’s refugee office has the resources or leadership to handle the challenge.

Democrats on Thursday called for a government audit of the health department’s process to track separated families, such as whether the refugee office has been keeping a master list of children separated from their parents — a question that HHS officials have repeatedly declined to answer.

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