Washington • The moral outrages from the Trump administration come so fast that they blur together, but this one stands out: The unconscionably cruel policy of ripping the children of would-be immigrants away from their parents at the border.
Officials do not even try to hide the fact that the purpose of this abhorrent and inhumane practice is to instill fear.
“If you cross the border unlawfully, even a first offense, we’re going to prosecute you,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last month. “If you’re smuggling a child, we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
“Smuggling” a child, Sessions said, as if referring to chattel. There was a time when my ancestors were forcibly taken from their mothers’ arms and sold on the auction block. Make America Great Again!
According to CNN, a Honduran woman at a Texas detention center was in the act of breastfeeding her daughter recently when the child was snatched away. Other migrant families have said their children were purportedly led away for showers and clean clothes — but never returned. This is the kind of behavior we expect from monstrous totalitarian regimes such as the one led by President Trump’s “talented” new friend, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. It is certainly not the policy of any nation that strives to be a “shining city on a hill.”
Trump has no such aspiration, of course, and Sessions has been a consistent anti-immigrant xenophobe throughout his political career. But most Americans — and, pertinently, virtually all Republican office-holders — once at least professed belief in U.S. exceptionalism.
I suppose the Trump-Sessions border policy might be called exceptional, but only in the sense that the rest of the world can only be appalled.
The practice of separating parents from their children flows regrettably but inevitably, the administration says, from its “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting every single would-be migrant caught crossing the border without proper documents — a misdemeanor offense.
The parents are hauled away to detention to await a court appearance. Minor children cannot be left to fend for themselves, so the government steps in. “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever,” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told National Public Radio last month. “But the big point is they [the parents] elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”
How extensively the “technique” is being applied is unclear, since officials refuse to release comprehensive numbers. Whether it is being used legally in all cases is doubtful. By law, would-be migrants who are seeking asylum — a group that includes many Central American families fleeing rampant gang violence — must be admitted to the country and should be released pending a hearing. This distinction, however, reportedly is not being properly respected.
Clearly this does not bother Sessions, who wants to erase the distinction entirely. On Monday, abusing his authority over the nation’s immigration courts, Sessions ruled that asylum claims on the grounds of gang or domestic violence “generally ... will not qualify.” Sessions proclaimed that few such applicants will even meet the “credible fear” standard for obtaining a hearing — meaning they can just be turned away at the border, and then arrested, of course, if they later enter the country without permission.
In the barrios of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, gang leaders often give teenaged boys a choice: join or be killed. For girls, the choice is join or be raped and possibly killed. Parents trying desperately to save their children’s lives are not welcome in Donald Trump’s America.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., brought the separation issue into the spotlight earlier this month when he tried to visit a Brownsville, Texas, detention center where immigrant children are being held — and was turned away. The Facebook Live video of this outrage went viral.
This week, reporters were allowed into that center, where nearly 1,500 boys were being held. Most were unaccompanied by adults when caught trying to cross the border; the rest, though no one would say precisely how many, had been taken from their parents.
The center, a converted former Wal-Mart, was clean and orderly, if overcrowded. The boys, ages 10 to 17, were well cared for — but could not leave. It was a prison for Spanish-speaking children. Trump and Sessions must be proud.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Eugene on Twitter at @Eugene_Robinson.