To fully reckon with the depth and magnitude of the moral depravity we stared in the face last week, as the Trump administration ripped screaming children from their mothers and erected kiddie concentration camps—sorry, "tender-age shelters"—in South Texas, offering patently absurd and constantly shifting justifications and outright lies all the while, we must first reckon with the fact that American immigration policy was capricious and awful long before Donald Trump began ranting about Mexican rapists and killers.
First things first: Progressives need to admit that, DACA aside, Barack Obama was pretty terrible on immigration. He deported more than 2.5 million people. He also detained children, especially following a surge of families and unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America to seek asylum in the U.S. in 2014. The children who came with their parents were detained with their parents, while the ones who came alone were held, at least temporarily, in juvenile facilities. After immigration advocates sued, his administration fought (unsuccessfully) a 2015 court order preventing immigration authorities from holding children for longer than twenty days.
For Obama, this ruling presented a dilemma: If you don't want to separate children from parents—his administration did so only in exceptional circumstances—and you can't hold children for longer than twenty days, you had to let the entire family go while their immigration cases played out, a process that can take years.
Where Obama saw a dilemma, however, Trump saw leverage. Along with his virulently anti-immigrant attorney general Jeff Sessions and alt-right poster boy/senior adviser Stephen Miller, the president found an opportunity to get what he really wanted: a border wall to satisfy his own narcissism, and strict limits on legal immigration to appease the Breitbart crew.
The kids would be his hostages.
In April, Sessions announced that, whereas previous administrations had generally declined to press criminal charges against people who entered the country illegally, the Trump administration would do so in every single case. (Being undocumented in the U.S. isn't a crime; it's a civil matter. Crossing the border in between official ports of entry, however, is a misdemeanor.)
And because the administration can't hold kids with their parents indefinitely, it separated more than twenty-three hundred of them over the next two months, turning them into unaccompanied minors (of which there are now nearly twelve thousand), detaining them, and sometimes shuffling them off to, as chief of staff John Kelly phrased it, "foster care or whatever."
The images that emerged of small children snatched from their families and stashed in makeshift cages—especially a gut-wrenching recording of dozens of children crying while a Border Patrol agent laughs about an orchestra missing its conductor—proved too much for the American conscience to bear. Pressure mounted and, on Wednesday, Trump—whose administration had alternately defended the policy as biblically ordained, denied its existence, claimed it was the Democrats' fault, and said the president was powerless to stop it—signed an executive order ending it.
There are still loose ends to be tied. The Border Patrol has said that it will no longer refer border crossers with children for prosecution, though the ultimate decision to prosecute resides with the Department of Justice. At the same time, the president has insisted that zero tolerance is still in effect. So too is that 2015 court order. Unless one of those things changes, it's not entirely clear what the White House is going to do.
In addition, because the Trump administration is as incompetent as it is cruel, it's uncertain when—or whether, or how—many of the twenty-three hundred taken children will be reunited with their parents. The executive order doesn't apply to them.
According to the White House, the 2,053 kids still in federal custody will be held until their parents' deportation proceedings are completed; if a judge decides that a parent has a case for asylum, that parent can apply to be the child's sponsor in the U.S. If the parent is to be deported, the child will be reunited with the parent before the deportation.
Two things to note here: One, this is an obvious effort to coerce refugees into dropping their asylum claims. As the Texas Tribune has reported, asylum seekers are being told they'll be reunited with their kids if they sign voluntary deportation orders. Two, there's only a skeleton of a mechanism in place for connecting separated families. In other words, it's still a mess, and the government is still intentionally inflicting pain to achieve its goals.
Something else to think about: None of this was necessary.
Before going further, we should understand America's role in fomenting the refugee crisis Trump is purporting to address. People are fleeing the northern triangle of Central America because of endemic poverty and rampant violence. In each of these three countries, you can see American hands at play: We overthrew the democratically elected government in Guatemala in 1954, setting off decades of civil war. We funded right-wing death squads in Honduras and El Salvador's long war with a left-wing guerrilla group. Our appetite for narcotics combined with our war on drugs still fuels the cartels in Honduras. And the MS-13 gang ravaging El Salvador began on the streets of California.
In other words, the situation didn't arise in a vacuum, and America is not without responsibility. What's more, we know that immigrants, both legal and otherwise, commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans, and that states with more undocumented immigrants have lower crime rates. Contra Trump's fearmongering, the evidence suggests that immigrants aren't dangerous.
But even if you believe in hard-line enforcement, there are better ways to do the job than traumatizing kids.
Last year, the administration spiked a case-management program in which 99 percent of participants showed up for their immigration court dates (including those who were deported). There are also equally successful ankle-monitoring and phone check-in programs.
In short, you don't have to separate children. You don't have to arrest their parents. You do it because you want to. You do it to send a message. And the message Trump clearly wants to send is that refugees—and immigrants generally—aren't welcome.
This is nothing new, of course. Trump has been broadcasting this message since the first day of his campaign. He has ended Temporary Protected Status for nearly four hundred thousand immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, and Nicaragua, all of whom had fled natural disasters and made lives in the U.S. He's insisted that any immigration reform curtail legal immigration and halt family reunification.
Earlier this month, Sessions announced that asylum petitions would no longer be granted on the basis of domestic abuse or gang violence, which he shrugged off as "personal crimes." And just last week, Trump took to Twitter to bemoan our "ridiculous immigration laws," which "let people come into our country based on the legal phrase they are told to say as their password." (It's worth noting that the right to seek asylum is guaranteed by U.S. and international law.)
In the president's view, these Hispanic migrants "infest our Country" like rodents or cockroaches—creatures we eradicate. He tweeted Friday, "We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief." (Melania was more succinct: "I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?")
To deny the racism undergirding this policy—the same through line that connects the Muslim ban, Trump's comments about good white supremacists in Charlottesville, his remark about "shithole countries" in Africa, and so on—is to be willfully blind to the reality in front of your eyes.
But we're also deluding ourselves if we pretend that Trump is an aberration. From slavery to Jim Crow; from the slaughter of Native Americans to the Japanese internment; from the exploitation of immigrants to discrimination against ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities—American history is rife with examples of marginalized groups being targeted by bigots and made scapegoats by demagogues.
In many ways, it's our original sin.
It's true that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. It's also true that images of children in cages prompted a backlash that even Trump couldn't ignore. And it's true as well that American sensibilities toward immigrants appear to be evolving: According to Gallup, a record 75 percent of Americans say immigration is a good thing, and four in five want to give Dreamers a path to citizenship.
Then again, Trump telegraphed his antipathy toward immigrants from the outset—made it a centerpiece of his campaign, in fact—and was elected anyway. Blame Russia or James Comey or Hillary Clinton if it makes you feel better, but the fact is, sixty-three million Americans looked racism dead in the eye and said OK.
None of what we saw last week should surprise us. Trump is doing exactly what he promised to do, what his most ardent supporters expect him to do.
Which is all to say, we can tell ourselves that we're better than Trump's cruelty, but America isn't quite done reckoning with its original sin. Maybe, though, we're finally fully awakening to the authoritarian horror show that Trumpism represents.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
North Carolina is a long way from the Mexico border, but there are several things you can do to help refugees and the families who have been separated by the Trump administration's policies.
On Saturday, thousands of people will protest in Washington, D.C., and cities across the country as part of Families Belong Together. The local march begins at 10:00 a.m. at City Plaza in Raleigh and will end with a rally at Bicentennial Plaza. The goal, according to the Facebook event page, is "to show the country and the world that North Carolina stands on the side of decency and humanity, not the callous tearing apart of families."
Senator Richard Burr defended Trump's policy of ripping children from their families. If you'd like to (politely!) have a word with his staff, call 202-224-3154 or email Richard_Burr@burr.senate.gov. Senator Thom Tillis struck a more moderate tone, but he hasn't cosponsored the Keep Families Together Act, which would, well, keep families together. Holler at him (politely!) at 202-224-6342 or email him at Thom_Tillis@tillis.senate.gov.
Here are some organizations—both local groups and those working on this particular crisis—that are doing great work for immigrants and refugees and could use your support.Al Otro Lado, alotrolado.org
Church World Service–Durham, cwsrdu.org
Council on Immigrant Relations, ciraleigh.org
D.E.A.R. Foundation, dearfoundation.org
Immigration Justice Campaign, immigrationjustice.us
Refugee Community Partnership, refugeecommunitypartnership.org
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, raicestexas.org
South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, ambar.org/2t1uDud
Southern Coalition for Social Justice, southerncoalition.org
Together Rising, togetherrising.org
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, North Carolina, refugees.org/field-office/north-carolina
World Relief Durham, worldreliefdurham.org