HAVING TORN migrant children from their families with no idea how they would be reunited — and almost no record-keeping that would facilitate reunions — the Trump administration is now laboring heroically to repair what it has broken. By “heroically,” we mean only that lower-ranking officials — most of them blameless in the mess created by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who proclaimed the “zero tolerance” policy that sundered families, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who oversaw the policy’s enforcement — are racing to meet a court-ordered deadline to reunify more than 2,500 children with their parents by Thursday.
Hundreds of bureaucrats have spent weeks trying to match separated children with their parents, hamstrung by the absence of data that was either never recorded or inadvertently destroyed. The fact that Mr. Sessions, Ms. Nielsen and the lieutenants who serve them never anticipated this eventuality speaks to their callousness.
Even as hundreds of parents and children have been rejoined in recent days and, in most cases, released (with parents wearing electronic-monitoring ankle bracelets), it has emerged that the stitching together of what the administration sundered may go on for weeks or months more. In court papers filed Monday, the government acknowledged that it may have deported more than 460 of the parents in question — although, incredibly, officials are not entirely sure. How and when those families might be reunited is anyone’s guess.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana M. Sabraw, the Republican appointee who ordered that children be reunited with their parents, was characteristically understated when he called revelations of the government’s incompetence “unpleasant” and “deeply troubling.” He added: “But it’s the reality of the case, and the reality of a policy that was put in place that resulted in large numbers of families being separated without forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people.”
In the chaos and confusion, parents in detention under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been presented with terrible and in some cases misleading choices. According to their advocates and lawyers, a number have been led to believe that waiving their asylum claims is the key to being swiftly reunited with their children. Doing so means near-certain deportation for parent and child — even if they could make a strong case for asylum.
ICE officials have also presented some parents facing deportation orders with the agonizing option of being removed from the country with or without their children. In some cases, mothers and fathers have chosen to leave their children behind, evidently hoping their prospects will be better in the United States without a parent than in their home countries with one.
From top to bottom, the Sessions-Nielsen zero-decency policy is a humanitarian outrage perpetrated in the name of the American people. Overall, illegal border crossings have been declining for decades, despite ups and downs and a surge this spring of Central American migrants fleeing violence in their home countries. Most Americans have recoiled from the gratuitous contempt and cruelty the administration has shown immigrants. That much is evident in the public outcry and judicial intervention that have forced the administration to retreat on family separation, the most noxious in a suite of venomously nativist policies.