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HHS Secretary Backs Trump Official Who Tried to Block Immigrant Teens From Abortion Care

Tina Vasquez

“For too long, young people, women of color, and immigrants have borne the brunt of extreme anti-abortion policies. No more. Scott Lloyd must go.”

U.S. Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar defended Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Director Scott Lloyd at a congressional hearing Thursday, as calls for Lloyd’s ouster intensified.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) told Azar at the House of Representatives subcommittee hearing that Lloyd should be “fired immediately” for overstepping his authority in “violating young immigrant women’s privacy, their right to medical care, and in some cases, their safety, and blocking them from accessing safe and legal abortions.”

The Trump administration in March 2017 implemented a revised policy “that allows [shelters] to wield an unconstitutional veto power over unaccompanied immigrant minors’ access to abortion,” according to court documents. This directive prevents unaccompanied immigrant minors in their care from obtaining abortion care by prohibiting federally funded shelters from taking “‘any action that facilitates’ abortion access to unaccompanied minors in their care without ‘direction and approval’” from Lloyd.

DeLauro has been one of the members of Congress most outspoken against Lloyd, tweeting Thursday that the ORR director has been “putting the health and safety of young unaccompanied minors in grave danger.” But the list of those calling for Lloyd to be fired is growing.

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Congressional Democrats last month called for Azar to fire Lloyd after a report revealed that HHS—the agency that oversees ORR—instructed attorneys working with immigrant minors in ORR custody not to inform teens of their right to abortion care. (These instructions have since been rescinded.) Leaders of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus accused Lloyd of showing an “ongoing, blatant disregard for women’s constitutional rights” and bullying young, immigrant women.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) on the Senate floor this week demanded that Azar fire Lloyd, joining the list of legislators calling for the same, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY)Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), and Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA). Murray said Lloyd’s actions to “undermine women’s health and deny women’s rights” are “utterly unacceptable” and “must not go unchecked.”

“Repeatedly, when the young women under the supervision of Director Lloyd’s office—some of whom are survivors of sexual abuse—have sought safe, legal abortion, his response has been to personally step in and put up barriers to care,” Murray said in her floor address. “He worked to prevent young women in his custody from speaking with lawyers about their rights. He personally interfered to try and pressure women out of their decisions to have abortions. Director Lloyd even had his office explore the possibility of reversing an abortion once the medical procedure was underway—a practice the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has noted is ‘unproven and unethical.’”

During the question-and-answer portion of Thursday’s congressional hearing with Azar, DeLauro read the job description for ORR director, reminding Azar that Lloyd is not a doctor and that he has “forced his religious beliefs on young immigrant women over and over and over again” and “put their lives in danger.” 

When DeLauro questioned Azar about what he has done to address Lloyd’s behavior, Azar said he didn’t “believe this is an issue involving Mr. Lloyd” and that his agency has a “statutory obligation to look after these children, and their unborn children.”

DeLauro outlined the long list of directives, laws, and statutes Lloyd has violated in order to block immigrant teens from accessing abortion care, including overriding the determination of a Texas state judge in the Jane Doe case, violating teens’ constitutional right to abortion, and violating the 1997 federal settlement Flores v. Reno, which requires ORR to provide emergency health care to minors, including family planning services. Azar did not offer a defense.

Advocates with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and All Above All organized what they called “the largest day of grassroots actions around Scott Lloyd yet” on Thursday. Organizers protested outside the House Appropriations Committee hearing, holding signs demanding Lloyd be fired, while a Planned Parenthood-commissioned “mobile billboard” followed Azar around Washington, D.C., while he traveled from the hearing to HHS headquarters.. The billboard played a video about Lloyd’s deposition on a loop.

[Photo: Planned Parenthood Action Fund protesters gather with signs that read "#Fire Scott Lloyd" and "Justice for Jane"]

Planned Parenthood Action Fund protesters gather outside of the congressional hearing. (Source: Planned Parenthood Action Fund)

Azar was met with more resistance at HHS headquarters. Members of Congress and more than 20 advocacy organizations held a rally outside HHS headquarters and delivered a petition demanding Lloyd’s termination, signed by more than 250,000 supporters. 

The wave of “anti-choice fanaticism” in the U.S. immigration system was first illustrated by the case of Jane Doe, a pregnant unaccompanied immigrant teen in ORR custody who was essentially “held hostage” for wanting to access abortion care. After a lengthy legal battle, the Salvadoran minor was able to receive abortion care, but similar cases have emerged in the months since.

Much of what is happening to teen girls in ORR custody can be traced to Lloyd, who, according to advocates, has an “obsession” with pregnant immigrant minors that is now shaping federal policy. Lloyd has weaponized his religious beliefs to deny care to immigrant girls, and his published writings mirror the talking points of anti-choice extremists and men’s rights activists.

Emails released by the ACLU as part of Jane Doe’s court proceedings revealed how entrenched anti-choice extremism has become within ORR. Lloyd, who has worked with fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, has nothing in his background indicating he is qualified or equipped to lead ORR or to “counsel” pregnant people in custody against seeking abortion care, which he admitted to doing when speaking to the Christian Broadcasting Network.

“For too long, young people, women of color, and immigrants have borne the brunt of extreme anti-abortion policies,” said Ann Marie Benitez, senior director of government relations at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “No more. Scott Lloyd must go.”

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