Like other governments, the government of the United States has sometimes separated children from their parents, but our government has never done it like this until now. (There is a monster living in the White House.)
Jonathan Chait summarizes:
The Trump administration is holding the children of migrants hostage, in both the literal and the figurative sense. Literally: The children are taken from their parents in order to leverage the behavior of adult migrants. And figuratively: The administration is leveraging the suffering of these families in order to pressure Democrats into capitulating to the administration’s policy demands. President Trump, reports Axios, “views the issue as leverage, and will try to get funding for a border wall or other concessions for a rollback of the policy.”
The hostage strategy arises from a profound internal division within not only the Republican Party but the Trump administration itself. The administration originally enacted a policy of separating child migrants from their parents in order to deter those families from entering the country. Chief of Staff John Kelly defended family separation last month as “a tough deterrent.” Also last month, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen laid out the tough policy: “If you are single adult, if you are part of a family, if you are pregnant, if you have any other condition, you’re an adult and you break the law, we will refer you. Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family.” To justify this powerful new deterrent, the White House “interpreted a 1997 legal agreement and a 2008 bipartisan human trafficking bill as requiring the separation of families,” an interpretation neither of the previous two administrations supported.
Unsurprisingly, the policy of separating children from their parents has proven unbearably cruel in practice. Not everybody within the Republican Party or even the administration itself is still willing to defend its own handiwork. And so the administration’s public explanation of this policy toggles between three mutually exclusive positions.
One, the policy exists and is good (“It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry. Period,” says Stephen Miller.) Two, the policy does not exist. (“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” insists Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.) And third, the policy does exist, and is bad, and the Democrats are to blame (“I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law,” declared President Trump.)
A recent poll finds the public opposed to child separation by a 56/37 percent margin, but Republicans somewhat in favor (46/32 percent). Another finds even more stark differences — the public opposes family separation by a 66/27 percent margin, but Republicans favor it, 55/35 percent.
Horrible events are coming to light every day. For instance, this from a few hours ago:
ProPublica has obtained audio from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, in which children can be heard wailing as an agent jokes, “We have an orchestra here.”
The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening. Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.
The baritone voice of a Border Patrol agent booms above the crying. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.”
You can read more and hear the recording here, if you can stand it. I only listened for a few seconds. Unlike the unidentified Border Patrol agent, most of us don’t enjoy children being abused and traumatized. (Would it help if the president were forced to listen to that recording? I’m wondering how it would affect a powerful sociopath.)
There is a bill in the Senate designed to end this barbarism. Every Democratic senator has announced support for the bill. None of the Republicans have, although some have expressed concerns about the administration policy. There is no indication it will even come to a vote, given Republican control of the senate. Only the president can end this today, although he can’t erase the traumatic memories. Nor can he change the fact that thousands of children will still be separated from their parents, perhaps forever, given the circumstances of their lives and the way government agencies sometimes do their jobs.
Some final thoughts from David Roberts, who writes for Vox.com:
Look at what US conservatives are able to justify to themselves — relative to what you thought was sane, normal politics just 2 years ago. Now ask yourself: if the permission structure were in place, do you have *any* doubt that they would support much worse?
US institutions may at some point provide a backstop, halting the slide. But do you have any remaining illusions that anyone or anything *within* the conservative coalition would stop it? That they would draw the line at, I dunno, cancelled elections or ethnic purges?
Of course, it sounds ridiculous & hysterical to talk about cancelled elections today — just as, a year ago, it would have sounded ridiculous & hysterical to talk about concentration camps for immigrant children. That’s kind of how this works.
One truth that’s held steady in US politics for my entire adult life: the US conservative movement will always get worse — more lawless, intolerant, heedless of norms or decency. Always. At every stage, there’s a temptation to think it’s as bad as it can get. It isn’t.
PS: Sure, our government has waged unjust wars, destroyed the lives of countless American Indians and supported the terrible institution of slavery, but treating people who want to come here in this way has no precedent.