HHS official says it doesn't have capacity to resume family separations

HHS can't care for separated migrant kids

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People protest for Immigrant rights rally in front of the Department of Justice on June 1, 2018, in Washington, DC.

(CNN) - The Department of Health and Human Services does not have the capacity to care for the thousands of migrant children who could be separated from their families should the Trump administration reinstate the controversial policy, a senior agency official said Tuesday.

Senior administration officials told CNN that in the last four months or so, the President has been pushing Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was forced to resign Sunday, to enforce a stricter and more widespread "zero tolerance" immigration policy -- not just the original policy started by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and undone by the President once it was criticized.

Jonathan White, Commander of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, said in a Senate hearing said the administration would not be able to receive the number of children the program would require if implemented again, "nor do we have the capacity to serve them, nor is it possible to build a system that would prevent the mass traumatization of children."

White, who has been critical of family separations, told lawmakers Tuesday that he would "never support the use of family separation, the systematic traumatization of children as a tool of immigration policy," when asked if he would support a reinstatement of the "zero tolerance" policy that led to family separations last year.

"I would never support the use of family separation, the systematic traumatization of children as a tool of immigration policy, but it's not about what I support," White said.

He called for Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, who asked the question of White, and other lawmakers to address the overall issue.

"Senator, it's about what you and your colleagues support," White said. "And it's up to you to define the conditions under which a child may be separated. Congress hasn't done that and you need to."

According to multiple sources, the President wanted families separated even if they came in at a legal port of entry and were legal asylum seekers. Trump wanted families separated even if they were apprehended within the US. He thinks the separations work to deter migrants from coming.

Sources told CNN's Jake Tapper that Nielsen tried to explain they could not bring the policy back because of court challenges, and White House staffers tried to explain it would be an unmitigated PR disaster.

"He just wants to separate families," said a senior administration official.

The administration is still reeling from the ramifications of the policy more than a year after it was announced by Sessions.

In a court filing Friday, officials said it could take up to two years for the government to identify potentially thousands of additional immigrant families US authorities separated at the southern border.

The government's proposed plan outlined a strategy for piecing together exactly who might have been separated by combing through thousands of records using a mix of data analysis and manual review.

While a federal court order forced the reunification of families separated as a result of "zero tolerance," an explosive government watchdog report in January revealed there could be thousands more who hadn't previously been acknowledged by officials.

And a federal judge last month ruled that this group should be included in the class-action lawsuit over family separations.

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