Felipe Gomez Alonzo in Yalambojoch, Guatemala. The 8-year-old boy died in U.S. custody at a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Eve after suffering a cough, vomiting and fever, authorities said. (Catarina Gomez via AP)
Columnist

With President Trump, there is no bottom. Every time you think you have seen it, he manages to sink even lower.

It is not news that the president is indifferent to human suffering. His limp response to the devastation of the 2017 hurricane in Puerto Rico — which he claimed to have been a “fantastic job” on the part of his administration — stands out in that regard. But on Saturday, we saw yet another level of depravity when Trump made his first comments regarding the deaths in recent days of two migrant Guatemalan children after they were apprehended by federal authorities. It revealed not only callousness but also opportunism, as he sought to turn this tragedy into a partisan advantage in his current standoff with Democrats over the government shutdown.

His statements came, not unexpectedly, over Twitter. First this:

And then, minutes later, this:

Not a word of sympathy here — much less remorse on the part of the government over the deaths of a 7-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy while in its custody. Nor does Trump address questions that are being raised about whether the administration’s new policy seeking to limit the ability of immigrants to seek asylum protection might be a factor in putting more at risk. Under recent changes, migrants must remain in Mexico as their asylum cases are processed, possibly increasing their willingness to do something reckless to come across the border.

Then there was the dissonance: His blast came on a day that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was visiting Yuma, Ariz., after stopping in El Paso, Tex. Her department has promised more thorough medical screenings and is calling on other agencies to help. “The system is clearly overwhelmed and we must work together to address this humanitarian crisis and protect vulnerable populations,” Nielsen said in a statement.

Even if Trump were to get funding for the wall — and even if the wall were the deterrent he promises it would be, a more dubious proposition — that would be many months if not years in the future. This is an immediate crisis, for which the president seems to have no concern. Nor does Trump address the fact that what he claims are Democratic immigration policies have been in place for decades, and yet, until this month, it had been more than a decade since a child had died while in Customs and Border Protection custody.

It is true that greater numbers of vulnerable Central American children are being put into treacherous situations. My colleagues Joshua Partlow and Nick Miroff have done excellent reporting on how smugglers are gaming a dysfunctional immigration system:

This is happening because Central Americans know they will have a better chance of avoiding deportation, at least temporarily, if they are processed along with children.

The economics of the journey reinforces the decision to bring a child: Smugglers in Central America charge less than half the price if a minor is part of the cargo because less work is required of them.

Unlike single adult migrants, who would need to be guided on a dangerous march through the deserts of Texas or Arizona, smugglers deliver families only to the U.S. border crossing and the waiting arms of U.S. immigration authorities. The smuggler does not have to enter the United States and risk arrest.

The Trump administration tried to deter parents this spring when it imposed a “zero tolerance” family-separation policy at the border. But the controversy it generated and the president’s decision to halt the practice six weeks later cemented the widely held impression that parents who bring children can avoid deportation.

As Trump fulminates about the wall, he rarely brings up the idea of doing anything about the source of the problem: the desperation of people who are being driven from their native countries by poverty and violence. Until those forces are addressed, migrants will keep coming, even if it means taking greater risks to do so.

In the meantime, we have a president who is willing to politicize the deaths of two young children to score points against the opposition party. And the most shocking thing about seeing him scrape along a new moral bottom is this: It is no longer shocking at all.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Horrifying indifference to children’s lives

Dana Milbank: This week in Trump inhumanity: Keeping a mother from her dying toddler

Eileen Truax: The U.S. must provide interpreters for indigenous migrants. It could save lives.

Ali Noorani: How we can follow our laws at the border — and still be a nation of grace

Newt Gingrich and Donald Graham: Fund the wall and save the dreamers