The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration’s cruel treatment of migrant families was intentional and calculated

Members of the U.S. military place concertina wire along a border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 29, 2018.
Members of the U.S. military place concertina wire along a border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 29, 2018. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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AFTER THE Trump administration, in May 2018, unveiled its “zero tolerance” policy, under which migrant families would be separated at the border, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the government “never really intended” to remove children from their parents. That was a lie.

A report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General confirmed what was broadly obvious at the time of family separation, as well as before and since — that the administration’s cruel treatment of migrants has been intentional, calculated and surgically effective in dispensing pain and suffering.

Mr. Sessions, who was explicitly carrying out the president’s own wishes, was crystal clear when he addressed federal prosecutors along the southwest border who were hesitant to carry out the policy that insisted on charging migrants criminally rather than allowing them to seek asylum in civil cases. “We need to take children away,” he told them, according to the report. His No. 2, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, was no less callous, instructing prosecutors not to worry themselves even if prosecuting parents meant preschoolers would be removed from their families and sent Mr. Sessions-knew-not-where. “Age of child doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Rosenstein, according to notes from an individual at the meeting obtained by the New York Times.

Mr. Rosenstein now expresses contrition at what he called, in a statement last week, “a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented.” Not so Mr. Sessions, who couldn’t trouble himself to be interviewed for the inspector general’s report or comment when it appeared. His leading role in carrying out that infamous policy will stand as an enduring disgrace, but no one who joined in is untarnished.

The administration’s indifference to the misery of toddlers, tweens and teens was as callous as it was premeditated. It arose from Mr. Trump’s agitation at media reports of caravans of desperate migrants making their way north from Central America.

At the direction of the White House, the operation was executed, deliberately and with forethought, as a means of deterrence — to frighten migrants so badly that they would not dare cross the border without papers.

So what if the operation’s planning took no account of providing for a bureaucratic means of tracking the children, once removed from their families, so they could be reunited eventually with their parents? Why would an administration gripped by the president’s angry exasperation trouble itself with such technical nuisances as formulating computer codes so parents and children might ascertain one another’s whereabouts? The integrity of families was beside the point; Mr. Trump’s fury was all that mattered.

Even today, more than 500 children remain separated from their families as a result of the administration’s efforts, extending back to 2017. That’s about a tenth of those taken from their parents, most of whom were deported to Central America. The number on the page is a dry statistic; it obscures immeasurable suffering. And that suffering, of course, was precisely the point.

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