Washington(CNN) A top immigration official on Tuesday said family detention centers are "more like summer camp" than a jail during a congressional hearing on the administration's efforts to reunite thousands of immigrant families separated as a result of its zero-tolerance immigration policy.
Asked at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to describe the so-called family residential centers where kids and parents are held, Matthew Albence, the head of enforcement and removal operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, made the comparison of the detention centers to a summer camp.
"These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water. They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured," Albence said. "There's basketball courts, there's exercise classes, there's soccer fields that we put in there. They have extensive medical, dental and mental health opportunities. In fact, many of these individuals, the first time they've ever seen a dentist is when they've come to one of our (family residential) centers."
Later in the hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked panelists if they had been to any of the family residential centers. Two of the five panelists said they had visited the facilities. She then asked the two panelists whether they would feel comfortable sending their child to one.
"That's a difficult question to answer, " said Jennifer Higgins, the associate director of refugee, asylum and international operations at US Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It's difficult to put myself in the position of an individual who takes a dangerous journey in which their child could be harmed, let alone whether I would send my children."
Albence said Hirono's question was "missing the point."
"These individuals are there because they've broken a law," he added.
Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, called the summer camps comparison "shocking."
"It doesn't matter what the facilities look like. The trauma is from separating the child from the parent," Gelernt told CNN's "At This Hour" on Tuesday. "Every night the child is going to sleep thinking, 'Am I ever going to see my parents again?' It doesn't matter whether they are in palaces. They certainly are not palaces. That's a shocking statement."
When San Diego-based US District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the administration to temporarily pause deportations of reunited families earlier this month, a government attorney invited the judge to visit a Department of Health and Human Services facility caring for children. Sabraw indicated that he appreciated the offer, but emphasized that "no matter how nice the environment is, it's the act of separation from a parent, particularly with young children, that matters, and it's time that is the issue."
This isn't the first time government facilities housing immigrant children have been compared to summer camps.
The Department of Homeland Security pointed out to CNN that Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, told The New York Times that a shelter he visited in Yonkers was "like summer camp." The same Times story also describes conditions for these facilities as ranging from "impersonally austere to nearly bucolic." While a child may end up at a center with picnic tables and an outdoor pool, the Times story notes that a child "could wind up at a converted motel" where "recreation takes place in a grassless compound, and the motel's damaged swimming pool is covered up."