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Trump is using the threat of being separated from a child to fight illegal immigration

William Rafael Carranza Martinez looks through the border wall before marrying his partner at the beginning of the March Without Borders at Friendship Park on April 29 in Tijuana, Mexico. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Between fiscal 2013 and 2014, the number of children apprehended while trying to cross the border from Mexico increased by 77 percent, jumping from 39,000 to 69,000 only to fall back in 2015. The surge was a function of a number of factors, including economic conditions and a surge in violence in Central America.

Pressed for a way to handle the influx, the Obama administration began to house children on military bases until it could be determined whether they were eligible to remain in the country and whether they had family members with whom they could live. That surge, mind you, was of unaccompanied minors, young people who crossed the border without their parents.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration was considering similarly using military bases to house children who had been apprehended crossing the border illegally. But there is a difference.

“The bases would be used to hold minors under age 18 who arrive at the border without an adult relative or after the government has separated them from their parents,” The Post’s Nick Miroff and Paul Sonne wrote.

That “or” is important. In addition to those children and teenagers coming across the border, the administration needs capacity to house children removed from families with whom they had been traveling. That, it seems, is the driver for needing more space: Instead of keeping children with their families, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week that it would begin separating them as a standard policy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on May 7, that the Justice Dept. will begin prosecuting every person who illegally crosses the Southwest border. (Video: The Washington Post)

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

The idea contained in that statement is that a large number of smugglers bring children with them to facilitate entry into the country and that it’s these people who are being targeted. But the reality seems to be different.

Last week, we noted an interview with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly in which he addressed the subject.

“Are you in favor of this new move announced by the attorney general early this week that if you cross the border illegally even if you’re a mother with your children [we’re going] to arrest you?” interviewer John Burnett asked. “We’re going to prosecute you, we’re going to send your kids to a juvenile shelter?”

Kelly riffed on his thoughts about illegal immigration for a bit and then put it flatly: “A big name of the game is deterrence.”

“Family separation stands as a pretty tough deterrent,” Burnett replied.

“It could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent,” Kelly replied. He added that “the big point 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.”

Putting a fine point on it: Kelly, himself the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, supports the blanket policy of separating children from their families because it’s a “tough deterrent” that is the “name of the game” in terms of limiting immigration.

Why is that deterrent needed? Because President Trump is mad about a recent increase in the number of apprehensions at the border. In March and April, the number of people apprehended trying to cross the border illegally rose to the highest points of Trump’s presidency, an increase that prompted him to go on an extended tirade against DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last week.

Part of the recent surge was an increase in the number of “family units” apprehended trying to cross the border. In February, 5,475 family units were apprehended. In March, it jumped to 8,873. In April, 9,647. Those family units, of course, include multiple people, meaning that the increase is multiplied by the size of the family.

Preventing one family unit from crossing the border illegally means preventing multiple people from doing so, in other words. But how to keep families from wanting to cross the border? Kelly told NPR that the threat of separating those children (and then perhaps moving them to a military base) would be a “strong deterrent.”

Nothing about this suggests that it is unintentional. Trump wants the number of apprehensions reduced. The increase is a function of families. The administration announces a policy meant to target parents in a direct and powerful way: separation from their children. Senior administration officials point to that threat specifically, calling it a “deterrent” and saying that “if you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

Don’t try to enter the country, or we’ll take your kids away — if only temporarily.

It’s important to remember that illegal immigration is often driven by factors similar to those that spurred the increase in 2014. Things such as violent crime and economic tension. Although crossing the border illegally is obviously illegal, few families don’t attempt it on a lark. The administration, in other words, is trying to create a disincentive for those families that can outweigh the incentive they have to try to enter the country illegally in the first place. Many will need to choose between fears.

Kelly hopes this choice will not “be used extensively or for very long.”