The migrant crisis unfolding at the Southern border has created new quandaries about the bounds of acceptable political discourse, as Republican officials involved in defending or carrying out the president’s policy of separating migrant children from their families have been hounded, heckled and refused service.
Whither civility? So ask some members of the Trump administration, along with a chorus of lawmakers and pundits who profess concern for the tone of democratic debate in a country that seems more divided than ever.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried out a new approach to the explosive issue: attempted humor. The government’s top lawyer found a punchline in the circumstances of children separated from their parents.
It is a fate, he suggested, that the president’s critics eagerly wished for anyone who would dare trespass on their rarefied realms, claiming without evidence that immigration activists enjoy opulence inaccessible to everyday people. He suggested their concern for their own material security was at odds with their alleged endorsement of open borders.
“These same people live in gated communities, many of them, and are featured at events where you have to have an ID to even come in and hear them speak,” Sessions said in remarks before the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Los Angeles “They like a little security around themselves, and if you try to scale the fence, believe me, they’ll be even too happy to have you arrested and separated from your children.”
Sessions looked up from his notes and grinned. Laughs and applause rose from the audience.
Partial to the “lunatic fringe” was how he characterized the lawmakers, lawyers, academics, celebrities and organizers who have condemned the division of families who cross the border illegally, often seeking asylum. An executive order issued by Trump last week ended the policy of forced separation, replacing it with family detention, but about 2,000 children remain split from their parents.
“They want borders in their lives, but not in yours,” Sessions said. “Not in the American people’s lives. That’s why the American people are sick of the lip service and the hypocrisy. They are sick of politicians who abandon promises as soon as the mainstream media criticizes them. They’ve seen it for decades and now they’re supporting the president, who’s on their side for a change.”
The warm reception that met Sessions inside the Millennium Biltmore Hotel marked a contrast to the scene outside. Protesters gathered to denounce Sessions and his role in enforcing the administration’s zero-tolerance policy on illegal entry. One sign labeled the attorney general a “kidnapper,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
Sessions was among a coterie of administration officials urging the use of family separation as a tool of immigration enforcement. Alongside him were Stephen Miller, his former Senate aide and now a senior policy adviser in the White House, and John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff. The idea was conceived in 2014 as part of an aggressive new approach to stemming the tide of migrants across the Southern border, but the Obama administration judged it too harsh to put into practice. It found fresh attention soon after Trump took office.
In a May appearance in San Diego, Sessions announced the new zero-tolerance policy, which relied on family separation to make visible the negative consequences of illegal entry.
“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child may be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said.
He has since asserted numerous grounds for the policy, including scripture. Earlier this month, Sessions pointed for support to Romans 13, which commands obedience to governing authorities — in what many religious leaders characterized as a sleight of hand.
Other administration officials have taken different tacks. For example, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen took to Twitter to claim falsely that a policy of family separation did not exist.