That number represents an indelible stain on President Trump and every individual in his administration who implemented this policy, flawed at the conception and typically, gruesomely incompetent in the execution. It is, perhaps in the technical sense but surely in the broader one, a crime against humanity. It is torture.
That number — I will stop repeating it, yet it cannot be repeated enough — represents a moral challenge and responsibility for the next administration. If Joe Biden is elected president, he must devote the maximum resources of the federal government to fixing this disaster. The United States broke these families; it must do whatever it takes to help them heal.
Nothing like that would happen in a second Trump term, because Trump himself doesn’t care. He doesn’t grasp the horror that he oversaw. He doesn’t comprehend the policy, and he is incapable of feeling the pain it inflicted.
Those truths could not have been clearer cut than during Thursday night’s debate.
Moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News asked the president a simple question: “How will these families ever be reunited?”
First, Trump misstated the situation: “Their children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels, and they’re brought here, and they used to use them to get into our country.”
No. These are children separated from their families, not separated from smugglers. They are children brought by their parents in desperate search of a better life, desperate enough that they would take the risk of the dangerous journey.
Then Trump pivoted to the irrelevant: “We now have as strong a border as we’ve ever had. We’re over 400 miles of brand new wall. You see the numbers. And we let people in, but they have to come in legally.”
Welker persisted: “But how will you reunite these kids with their families, Mr. President?”
Trump responded by pointing his finger at his predecessor: “Let me just tell you, they built cages. You know, they used to say I built the cages, and then they had a picture in a certain newspaper and it was a picture of these horrible cages and they said look at these cages, President Trump built them, and then it was determined they were built in 2014. That was him.”
This is typical Trumpian deflection, bluster undergirded by ignorance. The “cages” are ugly but irrelevant to the topic at hand: the deliberately cruel plan to deter border-crossing by separating children from parents. That was a Trump administration special, implemented with callous sloppiness and so extreme that even the Trump administration abandoned it.
Welker, for the third time: “Do you have a plan to reunite the kids with their families?”
At which point Trump made clear that he did not: “We’re trying very hard, but a lot of these kids come out without the parents, they come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs.” The children, he added later, “are so well taken care of, they’re in facilities that were so clean.”
Wrong, wrong and wrong. Wrong that the administration is “trying very hard” — the efforts to reunite the children that they separated from their families are being driven by court orders and outside groups. The Trump administration has been “trying very hard” only to prevent reunifications, arguing in court that it didn’t need to provide additional information about some of the separated children because they had already been released from federal shelters and were living with sponsors.
Wrong that “a lot of these kids come out without the parents” — the children Welker was asking about came with their parents, from whom they were deliberately separated by the Trump administration. As a draft report by the Justice Department inspector general quotes former attorney general Jeff Sessions instructing prosecutors: “We need to take away children.”
Wrong that the children “are so well taken care of.” By definition, they are not; the ones that Welker was asking about have been separated from their parents, some at unconscionably early ages. And in reality, they are not; the conditions in some facilities are appalling.
Biden, the Democratic nominee, gets it. “Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated and now they cannot find over 500 of sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal, it’s criminal.” The situation, he said, “violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”
It does. It must be fixed.
What if one of them were yours?