President Trump’s attempt to blame Democrats for separating migrant families at the border is renewing a political uproar over immigration, an issue that has challenged Trump throughout his presidency and threatens to grow more heated as he imposes more restrictions to stem the flow of illegal immigration.
In one of several misleading tweets during the holiday weekend, Trump pushed Democrats to change a “horrible law” that the president said mandated separating children from parents who enter the country illegally. But there is no law specifically requiring the government to take such action, and it’s also the policies of his own administration that have caused the family separation that advocacy groups and Democrats say is a crisis.
In April, more than 50,000 migrants were apprehended or otherwise deemed “inadmissible,” and administration officials have made clear that children will be separated from parents who enter the country illegally and are detained. The surge in illegal border crossings is expected to continue as the economy improves and warmer weather arrives.
Nothing so personifies the administration’s lack of humanity coupled with its utter cowardice as its attempt to duck responsibility for the very “shock and awe” immigration policy Trump demands his attorney general and secretary of homeland security carry out.
There are several issues intertwined. Trump would have us believe he is responsible for none of the suffering inflicted on immigrant youth. The facts tell us something quite different.
First is the issue of nearly 1,500 missing children. These were unaccompanied minors whom the administration has, unbelievably, lost in the system. It is both morally and legally accountable for these children. Congress’s failure to conduct adequate oversight is yet another example of the Republicans’ abdication of its oversight responsibilities.
Second is the issue of detaining children, accompanied or not, for a limited period of time. This was started during the Bush administration and continued under the Obama administration. However, there is no requirement to break up families. That was Trump’s choice.
That brings us to the third issue: Trump’s recent “no tolerance” policy that jails anyone suspected of crossing illegally. The practical effect of this is separating children, even very young children, from parents. The Post explains:
Although Sessions said he understood that some people were fleeing violence or other dangerous situations, he has also stated that the United States “cannot take everyone on this planet who is in a difficult situation.”
“If you cross the border unlawfully … then we will prosecute you,” he said in a pair of speeches in Scottsdale, Ariz., and San Diego. “If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you. … If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
The consequence of this new “100 percent” policy is that children will be separated from their parents as the adults are charged with a crime, even if the adults are seeking asylum and present themselves at official ports of entry. Under federal rules, Immigration and Customs Enforcement transfers unaccompanied minors, and now children of detained adult.
This is a moral and legal abomination. The affected children did not decide to come here illegally; their parents did. It is therefore entirely insufficient to insist that the United States, which now chooses to arrest everyone crossing the border, has no obligation to treat the children humanely.
Immigration rights activists are livid, as one would expect. America’s Voice, the progressive pro-immigration group, put out a press release on Friday blasting the administration. (“Our government, in our name and with our taxpayer dollars, is purposefully ripping children, including infants and toddlers, from their parents in a cruel push to deter migrants from seeking safety in the United States.”) The center-right National Immigration Forum also decried Trump’s policy in a press release:
“Conservative influencers’ and faith groups’ concern echoes that of child welfare experts and advocates. Experts from more than 200 national and state organizations have pointed out that parental absence compounds the trauma and developmental delays many migrant children face, and studies have shown that immigration policies that separate families are deeply detrimental to children’s well-being, including many U.S. citizens.
“Separating parents and children in an attempt to deter people who are fleeing violence from legally seeking asylum is cruel to families, harmful to children and wholly contrary to American values,” said Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum. “Family unity is an integral American value. Separating families is not just bad policy, it’s an affront to the ideals on which our nation is built.”
Trump’s cowardly attempt to shift blame to his predecessors or to Democrats reveals how politically disastrous this policy may be. This month Democratic senators bashed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for the separation policy. Lawmakers such as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have been especially outspoken. “This Administration’s immigration policies are outrageous, cruel, and inhumane,” she tweeted over the weekend. “Proactively working to break up immigrant families is putting these kids’ lives in danger. We need to put a stop to this. Members of the Administration should come testify on this inhumane policy.” While being careful not to confuse unaccompanied children lost in the system with separated children, she raised the legitimate concern that the same fate could await the latter group of kids. (“These missing kids could end up in the hands of human traffickers or worse. This is not who we are. We should be better than this.”) Objection to a policy this offensive to so many Americans will go well beyond the usual immigration advocacy groups.
Now that public backlash has intensified, even some right-wing publications have begun airing criticism. What we have not yet heard, however, is much (or any) criticism from elected Republicans. Perhaps they got an earful over Memorial Day weekend and now will speak up.
If the administration and its apologists treat the new child-separation policy as just another immigration issue in which they can look tough to their base, they may be surprised. It’s not good enough to mumble something about the rule of law, and blame parents fleeing oppressive conditions. Every parent in American, every decent American, will be sickened by the sight of young children being taken from the parents. If Republicans have a problem with women voters now, wait until scenes of tearful family separations make their way into midterm ads.
Democrats have an opportune time to highlight the ramifications of a cruel, anti-immigrant administration bent on juicing up its white grievance message machine. If Trump hasn’t the nerve to defend his own handiwork, maybe he should change the policy. If not, Americans in November will add this to the list of issues weighing in favor of changing the House and Senate majorities.
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