When a federal judge told the government that it must reunite children under age 5 with their parents by Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers balked: The timeline was too tight. Instead, the government provided an update to U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw on Monday, reporting that two of those children had rejoined their parents after being separated at the border, with an additional 54 of the 102 likely to rejoin their parents this week. The others? A mix of problems prevented their reunions, including, in one case, that the government didn’t know who the child’s parents were.
This effort to reunify children with their parents follows President Trump’s decision at the end of June to curtail his administration’s policy of forcible separations of families entering the country illegally. For several months prior, it was the government’s policy to remove children from their parents at the border, an effort that multiple administration officials indicated was meant to serve as a deterrent. The threat of being separated from your children, in other words, was intended to keep migrants from trying to enter the country in the first place. To the extent that those separations were seen as repugnant, the idea was successful — but the ramifications were felt mostly by Trump and his administration while border apprehensions weren’t noticeably affected.
On Tuesday morning, while Trump was headed to Joint Base Andrews for a trip to Europe, he was asked about the government’s failure to meet the court’s deadline for reuniting those children with their parents.
“Well,” he replied, “I have a solution: Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution. Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do — come legally.”
“Is that what you’re saying?” a member of the media asked in response. “You’re punishing the children?”
“I’m saying this: We have laws. We have borders,” Trump answered. “Don’t come to our country illegally. It’s not a good thing.” A bit later, he added: “Without borders, you do not have a country.”
Trump’s response does two things in short order.
First, it suggests that he saw the policy of family separation in the same stark terms as others in his administration. When White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told NPR in May that “a big name of the game is deterrence,” and when he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last year that “I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America to getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up through Mexico to the United States,” those comments mirrored Trump’s insistence on Tuesday that the best way to keep from having your children taken from you was not to enter the country illegally in the first place.
It’s remarkable in part because, to this point, Trump’s public approach to the policy of separations has been that they are “horrible” and a function of laws passed by the Democrats. On Tuesday, that political rhetoric slipped. The separations still weren’t Trump’s fault, but now they were the migrants’.
The second thing Trump’s comment did was suggest that the apparently confused system for reuniting children with their parents was as confused as it appears. It does no good to say that the solution to reuniting children with their parents is for those parents never to have crossed the border in the first place, any more than to suggest that the appropriate response to having your house burgled is to have installed an alarm system months prior. There was no indication from Trump that the government was handling the reunions adeptly. The comments bode poorly for the next deadline the government faces: ensuring that all 2,000-plus children separated from their parents under Trump’s policy were reunited with them by later this month.
Those obvious points aside, though, Trump also misrepresents how the separations occurred in the first place.
There’s no indication that most of those traveling from Central America to the United States are anything other than what they claim to be: families seeking asylum here to escape violence in their home countries. Trump and his allies, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have argued that many of the children arriving at the border with adults are, in fact, being trafficked into the country, but data from the Department of Homeland Security reveals that less than 1 percent of those apprehended at the border in the first five months of this fiscal year were children traveling with non-relatives. Of those 102 children under age 5 who were supposed to have rejoined their families by Tuesday, only three arrived with adults who weren’t their parents (and, therefore, couldn’t be reunified with them).
To seek asylum, migrants must be in the United States. As a result, many (or, one expert told us, most) of those apprehended at the border have turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents immediately after crossing into the United States to begin the asylum process.
That’s important context for Trump’s comments. The Department of Homeland Security has insisted that seeking asylum necessarily means entering the country at a designated port of entry and not crossing the border illegally between ports of entry to turn oneself in to border agents. (Some immigration experts suggest that this is an unnecessary legal burden.)
It’s also important to note, though, that during the period in which separations were in effect, the government was apparently turning away asylum seekers at ports of entry. In other words, Trump’s mandate that families “come legally” was hampered by the fact that there might not be a viable way to enter legally to seek asylum. If you can’t enter at a port of entry because agents are turning you away and if your family would be ripped apart if you turned yourself in after crossing between ports of entry, there is no practical way to follow the administration’s preferred process to seek asylum in the United States.
Not that Trump particularly wants people to seek asylum here. He has repeatedly railed against asylum seekers, and Sessions announced last month that the ways in which a migrant could claim asylum would be scaled down.
What was revealed above all else in Trump’s comments on Tuesday was frustration. His focus was seemingly never on how to process migrants quickly to reunite them with their children but, instead, to use that threat of separation to keep people from arriving. Trump’s exasperated insistence that the families themselves were to blame, that the families had violated the law and were reaping what they’d sowed in that regard, did nothing to answer the question of how to make those families whole again.
The solution to the political and ethical problem initiated by Trump’s policy shift was, according to him, for people looking for safety in the United States to go back in time and decide against seeking that refuge. An impractical — but revealing — recommendation.