Now almost two years later, the policy is still the subject of pending litigation. Ivanka Trump, the president’s adviser and daughter, has called the separations a “low point” for the administration.
The responsibility for cleaning up the mess fell to ORR—first caring for separated children and then reuniting them. The office struggled to do so under ORR Director Scott Lloyd, prompting Azar to remove him.
Complicating matters was another White House-driven policy Lloyd enacted before his departure. It required fingerprinting of all adult members in a child sponsor’s home (the vast majority of unaccompanied minors have a family member residing in the United States), which tripled the length of stay in ORR care from, on average, around 30 days to more than 90 days. Consequently, the number of children in the ORR system ballooned to nearly 15,000—a record high.
That’s when Jonathan Hayes entered the scene, first as acting director, then permanent director in early 2019. Hayes did not have prior experience in refugee or child welfare work, but he did have relevant management experience as chief of staff for two conservative members of Congress (Reps. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz.).
Under Hayes, ORR released a series of four directives that reshaped the way the office handled child placement. Most notably—while continuing to vet and run sponsors through background checks—Hayes suspended the practice of fingerprinting all adults in sponsor homes, citing the backlog and that none of nearly 50,000 fingerprints changed an ORR discharge decision.
“That allowed us to discharge some 8,000 children in 30 days,” Hayes told a House oversight panel last September. As of last week, HHS reported roughly 2,100 children in ORR care—the lowest number since before the 2014 surge.
Hayes declined an interview request, but people who worked with him said his Christian faith motivated his work (he’s an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America). A review of his congressional testimony painted a picture of someone who supports a secure border—when asked if there is a crisis at the southern border, he responded “absolutely”—but also wants to efficiently release children to families while they await court dates.
“I want to see the children back with their families,” Hayes told a House Appropriations subcommittee last July.
At that same, often-contentious hearing, Democrats pressed Hayes on transferring children out of Homestead, a particularly controversial emergency influx shelter for migrant children in South Florida. In mid-June, Homestead housed nearly 2,500 migrant children, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. At the July hearing, Hayes reported they had only 894 children left at the facility.
“You’re moving pretty quickly,” acknowledged Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the subcommittee.
“Yes, we are, ma’am,” Hayes responded.
At the same hearing, the top Republican on the panel also recognized the work ORR was doing.
“HHS has had some successes it doesn’t get a lot of credit for,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “The average stay there now [at Homestead] is about 42, 44 days. We’d like it to be quicker, but that compares to about 90 under the Obama administration.
Cole and two other Republicans active on refugee issues—Texas Rep. Michael Burgess and Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford—declined to comment for this story.
WHITE HOUSE interactions with ORR began to sour late last year after HHS brass resisted efforts to embed an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official at ORR. The Washington Post reported that senior HHS officials made the decision. But it was Hayes who ultimately took the blame for it.
After Hayes’ reassignment, two attempts to install ICE officials atop ORR failed to materialize, so the White House installed Heidi Stirrup as acting director. Stirrup, a deputy assistant secretary for policy, is a former Capitol Hill staffer without experience working with refugees or managing a nearly $2 billion budget. But she’s close to Miller and his top lieutenant, John Zadrozny, a former Federation for American Immigration Reform staffer who now works at the White House.
Through an HHS spokesperson, Stirrup declined an interview but offered this statement: “As political appointees, we are honored to serve at the pleasure of the president, and when we are asked to serve, we step up and we serve.”
In late March, Stirrup reassigned ORR’s other political appointee, Amanda Anger, and elevated Kim Womack, a former Trump campaign staffer with no known relevant experience, to chief of staff. She also hired as senior adviser Bennett Miller, an attorney who brings a law enforcement background from a stint at the Department of Homeland Security, but no child welfare experience.
Immigration hard-liners have populated the Trump administration from the beginning, but this represents the first time Miller and Zadrozny have opened a direct line of communication into HHS. They have pushed to restart fingerprinting of all adults in sponsor homes and prohibit the placement of children with illegal immigrants.
These changes would result in longer custody times and increasing numbers of minors in ORR care—what some call “reverse child separation.”