White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly came off as rather callous in an interview with NPR after being asked about separating young children from their parents at the border.

NPR’s John Burnett noted that many felt that a policy of pulling children away from parents if families entered the country illegally was “cruel and heartless.” Kelly dismissed that concern.

“I wouldn’t put it quite that way,” he said. “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”

“But the big point,” he continued, “is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”

The policy was announced Monday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said during remarks at an event in Arizona. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

That was Kelly’s point, too. Taking kids away from their parents “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent,” he told Burnett. In other words, that parents would justifiably be terrified about losing their kids is “the big point” — in Kelly’s words — of the policy. Parents considering crossing the border with their children would, the Trump administration hopes, think twice about doing so if being apprehended meant seeing their kids taken away by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The policy holds even for those who might be traveling to the United States seeking asylum from violence in Central America.

Why the need to try to scare families away from the border? Because, as Washington Post reporting on Thursday makes clear, President Trump is frustrated about a recent increase in apprehensions at the border.

When Trump came into office, there was a sharp drop in the number of apprehensions there — a decline that Trump celebrated regularly in speeches. He often gave the credit to Kelly, then the head of the Department of Homeland Security.


But this fiscal year, the number of apprehensions is back up, matching or exceeding 2016 numbers in the past four months.


The difference compared with 2017 is stark. In March and April, apprehensions at the border were more than double what they were 12 months before.


One factor cited by the Border Patrol? “The number of Family Units increased by 8 percent and the number of unaccompanied children (UAC) increased by 2 percent compared to last month,” it reports. In March, 8,900 family units were apprehended. In April, 9,600.

During a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, Trump lashed out at Kelly’s replacement at Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen.

Our Josh Dawsey and Nick Miroff reported:

“The blowup lasted more than 30 minutes, according to a person with knowledge of what transpired, as Trump’s face reddened and he raised his voice, saying Nielsen needed to ‘close down’ the border.”

‘Why don’t you have solutions? How is this still happening?’ he said, adding later, ‘We need to shut it down. We’re closed.’ … Trump’s tirade went on so long that many present began fidgeting in their seats and flashing grimaces.”

In the broader context of recent years, the numbers for March and April aren’t exceptional. In both 2013 and 2014, the number of apprehensions was higher.


But Trump didn’t promise “immigration at consistent levels.” He promised a sharp crackdown on illegal immigration and celebrated numbers last year that seemed to suggest that’s precisely what had happened. Now that the numbers are going back up, and dramatically so, Trump’s efforts on his signature issue seem to be ineffective.

Therefore, target families. If an increase in the number of families seeking to enter illegally is a problem, make families more frightened to attempt to do so. If taking children away from their parents is the sort of deterrent that can get those numbers back down and get Trump’s policy win back on track, so be it.

“They’re not bad people,” Kelly said of the immigrants in his NPR interview. “They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.”

If a 7-year-old being kept away from her mother for several months is what is required as a deterrent, the thinking goes, so be it.