With national attention riveted on the Trump administration’s new policy of prosecuting all people who cross the border illegally, resulting in untold numbers of children getting separated from their parents, officials have offered a rationale for the change. The idea is that the looming horror of separation from one’s child will act as a deterrent, so parents don’t attempt the journey and crossing in the first place.
But now President Donald Trump and the White House are putting a new spin on the policy: It’s all the Democrats’ fault.
Over the weekend, Trump called on his followers to “put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from their parents,” then added that “we MUST continue building the WALL!” Monday, the White House emailed out a statement blaming Democrats’ “open borders policies,” claiming they “lead to the temporary separation of illegal alien families” and “spread human suffering.”
What’s notable about this new spin – that Democrats are to blame for the policy change – isn’t just that it’s flatly false on its face. It’s also that, by making this claim, Trump and the White House are basically admitting that their own policy is a moral abomination.
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May that the administration would begin federally prosecuting all people who cross the border illegally, including asylum seekers, he flatly stated that this would result in children getting “separated” from their parents. Subsequently, White House chief of staff John Kelly explicitly described this as a “tough deterrent” to families crossing, though he denied this was heartless, claiming that the children will be put into “foster care or whatever.”
There is some confusion out there about the new policy. First, these children are entirely separate from the 1,500 or so children whose whereabouts the government has lost track of; those are children who crossed themselves, not with family members.
Second, the true nature of Sessions’ policy change is getting obscured. The shift here is that under Sessions, the Justice Department is prosecuting far more families for crossing the border, including asylum seekers, than previously. It is that change that is resulting in families getting separated, because that already has to happen once the parents are being prosecuted and jailed. The change is not that a new rule has been created to separates families. Thus, the administration is deliberately prosecuting more families in the full knowledge that it will mean more parents separated from children, and it is explicitly citing that fact to enhance its deterrent factor.
Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing to block the change, does not contest for now the constitutionality of Sessions’ decision to prosecute as many border-crossers as possible. (The ACLU separately argues that those seeking asylum should not be prosecuted, but it isn’t making that argument in this lawsuit.) Nor does the ACLU contest that when parents are prosecuted, they are going to be separated from their children for a very short period, while they are jailed before they are turned over to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement pending their asylum hearing.
Rather, the ACLU is claiming that the administration is not reuniting parents and children for long after they are initially separated. Once the parents are released from prison and turned over to ICE, the ACLU says, the government should return the children to them at that point, but are not.
It is hard to know how many parents and children have been separated for long periods of time; it is likely the government will come under extreme pressure to provide a more specific accounting. But advocates told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that they are seeing lengthy separations to a far greater extent than under any previous administration.
“If they were just separated for two days, that would be bad, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as what we’re seeing now,” Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU lawyer on this case, tells me. “The longer separation is the real perceived deterrent in the administration’s view.”
This gets at the heart of why the administration’s new spin is so absurd. Their argument is that that these separations have a positive justification, in that they supposedly deter families from crossing the border. But obviously, it is precisely the fact that such separations are awful that would make it a deterrent in the first place. This is why the administration is ramping up the prosecutions - to produce more separations, creating that deterrent. Many of these people are fleeing violence and other horrific conditions at home. So any deterrent to that would have to be deliberately awful.
When Trump and officials claim that you should blame Democrats if you think these separations are inhumane, they are basically conceding the game here. What is actually driving the change is that Trump and administration officials don’t want high numbers of people to be crossing the border to apply for asylum at all, no matter what they are fleeing. When they demand Democratic help in minimizing those crossings, it shows that for them, the very fact that so many people can cross the border in search of asylum in the first place is the real problem here.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog for The Washington Post.