In March, as The Washington Post was publishing a series of editorials criticizing the Trump administration for separating a Congolese asylum seeker from her 7-year-old daughter, administration officials contacted me to complain.
They couldn’t talk about specific cases, they said, but I should know that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen would never act against the interest of a child. I should read the government’s policy, and especially what it said about protecting children from human traffickers. How did I know the woman really was the mother of the 7-year-old?
I didn’t, of course, and I certainly didn’t want The Washington Post defending a child trafficker. But when I discussed this with my colleague Lee Hockstader, who was reporting and writing the editorials, he pointed out that the woman and child had presented themselves legally at a border crossing four months earlier — giving the government ample time to conduct a DNA test if it had suspicions. A DNA test that, for four months — four months when both mother and child were locked up, thousands of miles apart, and during which both were, by all accounts, absolutely miserable — it had not bothered to conduct.
Fortunately, this was one of those rare cases where the asylum seeker had a qualified advocate, the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit on her behalf. As U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw recounted last week, “The Court ordered the Government to take a DNA saliva sample (or swab), which confirmed that Ms. L. was the mother of S.S.,” as the mother and daughter were referred to in the lawsuit. “Four days later, Ms. L. and S.S. were reunited after being separated for nearly five months.”
Last week, I thought back to the extraordinary cruelty and cynicism of that case — the cruelty of separating Ms. L. from her little girl, the cynicism of trying to throw us off the story by implying that Ms. L. was a human trafficker — because Sabraw was in the news for another reason.
Faced with not one little girl torn screaming from her mother; not scores, as had been documented when he heard Ms. L.’s case in March; but thousands — Sabraw, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said: No more.
“The facts set forth before the Court portray reactive governance — responses to address a chaotic circumstance of the Government’s own making,” he wrote. “They belie measured and ordered governance, which is central to the concept of due process in our Constitution. ...Extraordinary relief is requested, and is warranted under the circumstances.”
The judge issued a preliminary and nationwide injunction, a fairly rare and drastic measure, telling the government to stop taking migrant children away from their parents “unless there is a determination that the parent is unfit or presents a danger to the child.”
He also ordered the government to return within 30 days all children who had been taken away, and within 14 days if they were under the age of 5.
All this happened, it’s true, when many Americans, their attention far from a district court in San Diego, found cause for alarm about the rule of law. The Supreme Court upheld a restrictive visa policy that unquestionably had emanated from President Donald Trump’s anti-Islamic animus. It ruled by a 5-to-4 majority that existed only because the Senate had refused to consider President Barack Obama’s highly qualified Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, in 2016.
Then came the announced resignation of the Supreme Court justice who had come to symbolize the embattled effort to keep the court from devolving into permanent, partisan camps. And the week ended with the horrible murder of five employees of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis in apparent revenge for their newspaper doing its job.
All very real.
And yet not the whole story.
Sabraw’s order pushing back against the administration’s inhumane actions on the border — a single, Republican-appointed judge telling the government it has to change its ways — is part of the story, too.
“We are a country of laws, and of compassion,” he wrote.
His order was not the last word. Trump will continue to speak dishonestly about immigrants, to stoke fears, to do them harm and slander those who are coming here as our forebears have been coming for generations.
His officials will continue to portray mothers as human traffickers, when they can get away with it.
But there will be people pushing back.
“We are a country of laws, and of compassion,” they will say. Many Americans, as always, will be working to keep that true.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. Previously he was a local reporter in Virginia, a national reporter covering national security and a foreign correspondent based in Tokyo and Moscow.