The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration’s immigration policies are impossibly cruel. That’s the whole point.

(Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP)

Amid growing outrage over the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents when families arrive at the border, many are asking how the administration can be so cruel as to literally tear children from their mothers’ arms. There’s a clear answer, one that runs through all of the administration’s policies on immigration:

The cruelty is the whole point.

It’s both a reflection of President Trump’s beliefs and those of his key advisers on immigration, and a practical tool they are using to reduce the number of immigrants coming to the United States. There won’t be a more humane set of policies coming out of this administration, because they have no interest in being humane.

Back in December, The Post reported that the administration was considering a set of policy changes that would both separate families arriving at the border and crack down on undocumented parents already in the United States who send for their children. Then earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that everyone who crosses the border illegally will be subject to criminal prosecution, and because children cannot be held in adult jails, that means families will be split up. (Previously, families were held in facilities where they could remain together.)

The implementation of this policy has led to agonizing scenes at the border of anguished parents and terrified children. “This is as bad a practice as I’ve seen in my career,” one American Civil Liberties Union lawyer told NBC News. “It has such a cruel feel to it.” In some cases, families have been separated even when they arrived at official ports of entry and requested asylum.

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The Trump administration has made no attempt to hide the fact that they hope that the harshness of this policy will deter people from seeking to come to the United States. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” said Sessions. “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.” As White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly put it with his characteristic compassion, “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” The “or whatever” turns out to potentially include internment camps on military bases.

The idea of using harsh policies as a deterrent to illegal immigration has been part of the Republican approach for some time. You may remember that in 2012, Mitt Romney proposed “self-deportation” as a solution to the problem, the idea being that if you made life miserable and terrifying enough for undocumented immigrants, they’d leave. Believe it or not, at the time he was intensely criticized for the remark.

When he ran for president, Trump not only proposed a set of policies to make America less welcoming of immigrants — a wall on the Southern border, a ban on Muslims coming to the United States — he also used rhetoric far harsher than other Republicans had been willing to in the past or even at that time. Others would say that they only opposed illegal immigration but not legal immigration, and would pay lip service to the idea that we’re a nation of immigrants. In contrast, Trump began his campaign calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, propagated racial stereotypes and essentially told Republican voters that they no longer needed to pretend to believe that immigration is a good thing for America.

The Republican base loved it. Indeed, there may be no single factor more responsible for Trump winning the GOP nomination than his harsh rhetoric and stances on immigration. And unlike the position he takes on some issues, it’s obvious that Trump sincerely dislikes the very idea of immigration, or at least immigration from countries that are not majority white. He has surrounded himself with a group of advisers who share the beliefs not only that illegal immigration must be stopped but that legal immigration should be curtailed as well.

These ideas have been turned into policy. The Trump administration has, among other things, done the following:

  • Capped the number of refugees the United States accepts at 45,000, the lowest number since the refugee program was created in 1980. The actual number accepted this year could be only half that.
  • Rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
  • Rescinded the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program.
  • Barred entry from certain Muslim-majority countries.
  • Ended temporary protected status for immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Nepal, Sudan and Nicaragua, forcing people who have lived legally in the United States for years or even decades to return to the countries of their birth.

As the Migration Policy Institute concluded, “No administration in modern U.S. history has placed such a high priority on immigration policy or had an almost exclusive focus on restricting flows, legal and unauthorized alike, and further maximizing enforcement.” They even changed the mission statement of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services so it would no longer refer to the United States as “a nation of immigrants.”

So when you hear horrifying stories from the border of families being ripped apart, understand that the administration is perfectly happy for those stories to be told. They have no compassion for the human beings involved, and they want others who might consider coming to the United States to know how heartlessly they’ll be treated. It’s the whole point.

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