IN THE early months of Donald Trump’s presidency, administration officials were in the habit of feigning indignation when questioned about cases involving family separations. No such policy existed, the officials declared. And in instances when children were taken away, they insisted, it was simply to protect them from traffickers who might be posing as parents, or from unfit or criminal parents.
That turns out to have been untrue, as a report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general makes clear. In fact, starting just months after President Trump took office, the administration undertook family separation in earnest, as an experiment in which the guinea pigs were thousands of toddlers, children and teenagers.
That gave rise to the administration’s full-blown war on immigrant families, which then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled last spring as part of a “zero tolerance” policy whereby migrant children would be wrenched routinely from their parents. It was abandoned six weeks later amid public outrage — it turns out that Americans might stand for a lot, but not for the spectacle of sobbing children and hysterical parents torn apart by U.S. Border Patrol officers.
The uproar over family separations was a moment of clarity, but it followed a season of covert cruelty. Within eight months of the Trump administration assuming power, the percentage of separated minors taken into HHS custody had jumped more than tenfold from the last months of the Obama administration. For nearly a year, the American public was kept in the dark about that shift, which top officials suspected would trigger popular outrage.
When human rights advocates and journalists got wind of a particular case about a year ago involving a 7-year-old Congolese girl forcibly taken away from her mother, known as Ms. L., a Homeland Security spokesman insisted the separation arose from suspicions that the two were not actually related. Yet weeks went by without any effort to determine the truth. And when a DNA test was finally conducted, after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit and journalists started asking questions, it confirmed Ms. L.’s parentage.
That disgraceful episode turns out to have been emblematic of a government that regards migrants and their children as less than human. In June, Mr. Trump spoke of the danger of immigrants who would “infest” the nation. When human beings are degraded by inclusion in the lexicon of pest control, then traumatizing children becomes a pilot project and finally a policy, legitimized as a means to deter illegal immigration.
A byproduct of that attitude was the administration’s cavalier attitude toward documenting the effects of its policy — for months, no agency bothered to keep count of the children removed from their parents. Even after a thorough study, the HHS inspector general could only conclude that “thousands” more kids were separated than the 2,700 whom the administration acknowledged in federal court last year.
To paraphrase a saying often attributed to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin: One traumatized child is a tragedy; thousands are a statistic. That’s an apt description of the Trump administration’s callous attitude and actions.