But no one should be fooled about what Trump is doing. His ideology and goals have not changed. He’s still vilifying immigrants to charge up his angry base. He still wants not just to stop illegal immigration but to cut back on legal immigration as well. And his impulses are as cruel as ever. Right now he and his advisers, particularly those such as Stephen Miller who have long sought to make America whiter, are not retreating. They’re devising ways to make immigration policy as brutal as they can get away with, even if they’ve been forced to take a small step backward.
The first thing everyone should understand is that Trump’s executive order was not a reversal, or a cave, or a capitulation. This crisis was caused by the administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy, under which everyone crossing the border illegally, even those who present themselves to officials and say they are seeking asylum, is subject to criminal prosecution. That policy is still in place. As Trump said yesterday, “We are keeping a very powerful border and it continues to be a zero-tolerance. We have zero tolerance for people that enter our country illegally.”
The goal of the executive order is to shift from detaining children and parents separately to detaining the families together. But this would still be a harsher system than it had been previously, in which a family seeking asylum would usually be released while their case moved through the system. That can take months or even years; those families would now be imprisoned for extended periods for the crime of crossing the border — a misdemeanor. And we should note that the administration doesn’t seem to have decided if or when it’s going to reunite the more than 2,300 children that have already been removed (likely more by now) with their parents.
There’s a legal complication as well. Trump’s executive order instructs the attorney general to go to court to seek a change in the Flores settlement, a consent decree that says the government can’t detain immigrant children for more than 20 days. If they get what they want, then they’ll be able to hold families indefinitely. Putting a family together in a cage for months or years is certainly better than putting children alone in a cage for years, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly harsh.
And we have to understand that from the beginning, the cruelty of these policies was the whole point. The administration wanted to deter people from seeking asylum by showing them how horrifically they and their children would be treated if they tried to come to the United States. Trump, who describes immigrants in terms we use for insects and vermin (they “pour into and infest our Country,” he tweeted), has over and over again made clear his own xenophobic and racist beliefs about them. He also knows that his core supporters share those beliefs, and he seeks at every opportunity to use antipathy toward immigrants to reinforce their bond with him.
This is still the president who opened his bid for office in 2015 by saying Mexicans are rapists, who ran a campaign centered on fear and hatred of outsiders, who said he would ban Muslims and build a wall on our border, and who announced he was canceling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, leaving hundreds of thousands of young people who grew up in the United States and did everything right vulnerable to deportation. This is a president who is positively obsessed with whether he looks “strong,” as though this entire issue is some kind of judgment on his personal manhood. Here’s what he said in a White House event yesterday:
The dilemma is that if you’re weak — if you’re weak, which people would like you to be — if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.
He kept returning to this idea, using the word “strong” nine times (“we are very strong at the border … we have to be strong on the border”). Tearing children from their parents’ arms may not show a lot of heart, he plainly believes, but it’s strong, and the last thing you want is to be “really, really pathetically weak.”
So rest assured, Trump and his administration haven’t retreated. As we speak, they’re trying to figure out how they can devise an immigration policy that serves the same goals they’ve always had, just with a little less bad publicity.