WASHINGTON — Not until the day it was announced did senior officials from three key agencies learn of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy to deter migrants from illegally entering the United States by threatening jail sentences and separating children from their parents.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, the officials said they were given few instructions and had no plans for reuniting the families when the policy was announced on April 6.
One official, Cmdr. Jonathan D. White of the United States Public Health Service, said he learned of it from watching television.
Still, the officials — from the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security — tried to defend how the administration’s controversial policy was carried out.
Matthew Albence, the acting No. 2 official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described family detention centers set up to shelter migrants as “more like a summer camp.”
“These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water,” Mr. Albence said. “They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured.”
That prompted Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, to ask if Mr. Albence would send his children to one of the centers.
He did not directly answer, but said he was “very comfortable” with immigrants’ treatment.
The hearing follows the Trump administration’s attempts to reunite nearly 3,000 migrant children with their parents after they were separated while crossing the Southwest border. As of last week, about 1,800 migrant families had been reunited.
Nearly one-fifth of the parents have been deported or otherwise left the United States since they were separated from their children, administration lawyers said. As a result, an estimated 429 children remain in government custody, the officials said.
Commander White, who is helping oversee the family reunifications, conceded that children were harmed by being separated from their parents. But he said he was not told of the zero-tolerance policy before the administration moved ahead with it.
Under the policy, the government has threatened to prosecute all adults who illegally enter the United States and, until recently, sought to detain the vast majority of those migrants until their cases were heard in court. But that resulted in parents being separated from their children, who are prohibited by a 1997 court agreement from being detained for more than 20 days.
After an international outcry, President Trump signed an executive order on June 20 that halted the family separations. A federal judge in California later ordered the government to reunite the children who had been taken their parents.
Republican and Democratic senators alike agreed that the separations were inhumane, and subsequent efforts to reunite the families had been haphazard at best.
Still, solutions for dealing with the immigration crisis broke down largely along partisan lines.
“The administration mishandled family separation, but Congress is also to blame,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the committee. He urged senators to draft legislation to supplant the 1997 court agreement.
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said drug cartels were using migrant children to distract the Border Patrol from smuggling operations.
Democrats, though, focused their questioning on the policies that led to the family separations.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, called the zero-tolerance approach a “deeply immoral and haphazard policy that fundamentally betrays American values.”
At one point, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, asked officials to raise their hands if they thought the policy — or its effect of separating families — was successful.
None of the officials raised their hands.
But the officials maintained that past administrations had also cracked down on illegal immigration, similarly resulting in family separations. Obama administration officials have denied that their policies were intended to remove children from their parents.