The Trump administration is wielding tight control over images of migrant children being held, separate from their parents, but the limited photos and videos released by the Department of Health and Human Services already are shaping the national immigration debate.
Former first lady Laura Bush, who seldom steps into the political arena, cited “images of children who have been torn from their parents” in the opening sentence of an op-ed that appears in Monday's Washington Post.
“Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso,” Bush wrote. “These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
To date, journalists have been permitted to tour only a Brownsville, Tex., facility that houses boys 10 and older. Reporters were not allowed to take their own photos or videos but were instead supplied with handout images. Reporters have not been inside holding centers for younger children.
On “Fox & Friends,” a show where President Trump can do little wrong in the eyes of the hosts, Steve Doocy on Monday acknowledged the "stark" pictures from the Brownsville facility when interviewing deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley.
“Hogan, let's talk about the humane part,” Doocy said. “You know, we got, from the Border Patrol, some of the images from inside these detention facilities. And you can see — some have likened them to concentration camps. Some refer to these as cages. And I can understand that point of view. Look, I'm from a farm community. I see the chain-link fences; it's more like a security pen to me. Nonetheless, whether you call it a cage or you call it a pen, the images are stark.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” Gidley replied. “It's heart-wrenching.”
Gidley's sympathetic response was one more shift in the White House's inconsistent tone, which has varied according to which member of it is speaking. When a journalist repeatedly asked press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday whether she has “any empathy for what these people are going through,” Sanders ignored the questions and focused on defending the administration.
As cable news has become saturated with images of children fenced in and sleeping on floors, however, the White House has joined the outrage chorus — while blaming Democrats for what Gidley called a “crisis.”
The president, Gidley said, “doesn't like this, but he also understands it's the law of the land. You have to enforce these laws.”
In reality, there is no law that requires children to be separated from their parents. Until recently, many adults accused of trying to enter the United States illegally were released on bond and ordered to appear in court, allowing them to keep custody of their children in the meantime. That changed when the Trump administration adopted a “zero-tolerance policy” in April.
Democratic lawmakers, seemingly aware of the power of images, have toured or tried to tour holding centers with TV cameras rolling. On Sunday, for example, seven Democratic members of Congress made an unannounced trip to the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey, where they were initially denied entry but ultimately visited five detained immigrants.
The lawmakers then held a news conference, flanked by protesters.
Earlier this month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) had an aide live-stream his attempt to visit the Brownsville facility, which ended with a call to police, who prevented him from entering.
Trump's apparent strategy is to present such scenes as political stunts. He told “Fox & Friends” on Friday that Democrats “could solve [family separations] very easily by getting together. But they think it's a good election point.”
The implication is that Democrats don't really want to stop family separations but prefer to grandstand during the midterm election season. Trump may have an easier time undermining Democrats' perceived sincerity after viral photos showing children in chain-link enclosures in Nogales, Ariz., turned out to be from 2014, during the Barack Obama administration. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau were among those who tweeted and deleted the photos.
A month after White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly defended family separations as a “tough deterrent” and insisted that “the children will be taken care of,” the White House and even the president's boosters on “Fox & Friends” concede that images of separated children look bad.
The goal now is to convince voters that such images are the fault of Democrats.
“If the Democrats would sit down, instead of obstructing, we could have something done very quickly — good for the children, good for the country,” Trump said Monday at a meeting of the National Space Council.