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All things to all people: How the administration is presenting child separations to different audiences

The Trump administration changed its story on immigrant family separation no fewer than 14 times in one week. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

The reality of President Trump’s policy on child separation is straightforward. The administration has implemented a “zero tolerance” rule for those crossing the border into the United States without authorization. Adults are taken to detention facilities that are effectively jails. The government isn’t allowed to detain children in jails, so they are sent to other detention facilities. They enter a system set up for children who cross the border without their parents, a system run by a different part of the government that tries to place children with relatives who are already in the country.

Why do this? In large part, as White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told NPR in April, because the threat of being separated from their children would serve as a deterrent for migrants thinking about coming to the United States — even if they hope to travel to the United States to flee violence in their home countries.

In recent weeks, this policy — and the images that necessarily accompany separating young children from their parents — has prompted a broad and growing public outcry. Politicians don’t like criticism of their policies, and the administration has splintered into three ways of addressing the subject, each aimed at appealing to a particular audience.

Denying the policy exists

Target audience: People looking for a reason to believe that things aren’t as bad as they might seem.

On Sunday evening, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made a flat declaration on Twitter: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

In broad strokes, this is true. There is no existing policy from the department in which people arriving at the border with their children see those children taken away. Instead, there is a policy that has the effect of separating hundreds of children from their parents — nearly 2,000 in the past six weeks, according to the Associated Press.

Nielsen’s goal is to provide cover to those who find the policy distasteful but also have an interest in defending the administration. By casting the policy that results in those detentions as complicated and not focused on the separations, it softens the effect of photos of children barricaded in ad hoc chain-link enclosures.

And the tweet worked, at least to some extent.

It is not the case that Nielsen’s tweets “set the record straight” in any meaningful sense. Accompanying tweets to the one quoted dealt with another nuanced aspect to the separation question: People crossing the border and then seeking asylum, who Nielsen argues must do so at an official port of entry. Some of those who sought asylum at a port of entry have nonetheless been separated from their children. Others who try to present asylum claims at a port of entry aren’t allowed to do so.

Instead of clarifying, Nielsen’s tweets play down the actual policy shift — “zero tolerance” on border crossings that necessarily leads to detentions necessitating the separation of parents from their children — by taking issue with a subset of the critiques being made by those who oppose the change. Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, called the situation “incredibly complicated,” implying that there’s a nuance that, once understood, softens the negative popular understanding.

This leverages a central feature of the political discourse in recent years: to find the largest possible incorrect claim made by your political opponents to undercut their entire argument. (This is a hallmark of Trump’s rhetoric.) If you’re predisposed to assuming that your political opponents or the media are acting in bad faith, this is a trivial rhetorical tool for officials to deploy.

If your takeaway from Nielsen’s nuanced defense is that the debate about separating children from their parents isn’t happening the way that it has been presented? The administration isn’t going to complain.

Blaming the policy in full or in part on their opponents

Target audience: People generally looking to blame Democrats.

One of those people who has characterized the family separations in starkly negative terms is the man responsible for them: Trump.

Last month, Trump called the separation of children from their parents “horrible” in a tweet. But the tweet didn’t say that he apologized for implementing a policy change that led to horrible effects. Instead, he blamed Democrats.

Last Friday, talking to reporters, he did the same thing.

“The children can be taken care of quickly, beautifully and immediately,” he said. “The Democrats forced that law upon our nation. I hate it. I hate to see separation of parents and children.”

When a reporter noted that there was no law mandating the separations, much less one that was Democrats’ fault, Trump sidestepped it, with a murky, “The Democrats gave us the laws.”

Counselor Kellyanne Conway, speaking on “Meet the Press,” argued that the policy is a function of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which made it illegal to cross the border while eluding immigration officials or somewhere beside a port of entry. In 1952, Congress was controlled by Democrats and the president was Democrat Harry Truman. But this again ignores the fact that the administration has discretion in how it approaches those crossing the border in violation of the law and has chosen to implement a system that results in children being separated from their parents.

The argument that the separations are the Democrats’ fault has been extended to an argument that the separations are the Democrats’ problem to solve. Trump has argued repeatedly that the solution is for Democrats to acquiesce to his broader immigration agenda. The effect, many have noted, is a bit like ransom-taking: Trump unilaterally did something that met with broad public outcry and claims that the way to undo it is to give him what he wants.

There are more nuanced versions of the it’s-the-Democrats’-fault argument, such as the one deployed by first lady Melania Trump over the weekend.

“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” she said in a statement. The broad suggestion is that the problem needs to be fixed. But the proposal for fixing it is presented as falling to “both sides” who must pass broad immigration legislation — as though that’s the only way to fix the current spike in family separations.

Embracing the policy

Target audience: People who are comfortable with the separation policy.

Then there are those in the Trump administration who aren’t politicians, people who serve at the pleasure of the president. People such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chief of Staff Kelly and senior adviser Stephen Miller.

Last week, Sessions tried to defend the shift using a biblical passage suggesting that following the law was an extension of following God. The same passages had been used to defend slavery in the 19th century.

According to Miller — once a Sessions Senate staffer who pushed a hard line on immigration in Congress — the decision to implement a policy of separations was not tricky.

“It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period,” he told the New York Times. “The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”

In May, Kelly gave that interview to NPR.

They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws,” he said. “But a big name of the game is deterrence.”

Asked if separating children from their parents wasn’t a tough deterrent, Kelly agreed that it was.

“It could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent,” he said, although he denied that it was cruel. “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But 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.”

In March 2017, Kelly was serving in Nielsen’s job, leading the Department of Homeland Security. It was he who first proposed the policy now denied by his successor, arguing, according to the Times, that it was needed “in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network.”

Update: Shortly after this post was published, the administration picked up a new line of argument, detailed below.

The policy is helping children

When Sessions introduced the formal policy last month, he argued that the separations were needed because children crossing the border were often in the company of smugglers, not their parents.

“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,” he said. “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.”

On Monday morning, this became a focus of the administration’s defense of its policies. Trump tweeted something similar, arguing that smugglers were using children to help them enter the United States.

Nielsen, in a speech at the National Sheriffs Roundtable on Monday, made a similar argument.

“We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are in fact a family,” she said.

It’s not clear how many of the children crossing the border in the company of adults are not related to those adults. MSNBC’s “All In,” though, obtained documents indicating that 91 percent of the adults facing criminal charges for crossing the border were charged with misdemeanors in connection with first-time illegal entry, not as smugglers.