Is the United States government intentionally separating migrant children from their parents or not? And should it be?
There you have the most contentious issue in U.S. politics over the last few weeks. It’s so contentious that neither President Donald Trump’s plan to create a legion of space cadets, nor his quip that Americans should obey him like North Koreans obey dictator Kim Jong Un, has been able to bump these children from the headlines.
Maybe our attention spans have increased. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
But even for those who have been paying attention all along, it’s hard to know what is true and what isn’t — you know, what with the fake news and all, and administration officials who don’t seem to be able to keep their stories straight. Shouting and partisan posturing on both sides don’t help, either.
Here’s what we know so far and can be stated with some certainty:
• In early April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announced a “zero-tolerance” policy for people who cross the U.S.-Mexican border illegally.
• Following implementation of that policy, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed Friday that almost 2,000 children were separated from their families between April 19 through May 31.
Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have defended the Trump administration’s enforcement of the “zero-tolerance” policy.
Last Thursday, Sessions described its biblical justification: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said.
Late Sunday, however, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
“For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous Administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between ‘family’ members, or if the adult has broken a law,” Nielsen added.
And yet there are thousands of children in detention, and Jeff Sessions says the Bible justifies the policy.
Not only are there thousands of children in detention, a government video distributed to the press shows a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, where men, women and children can be seen inside large locked cages.
Hours after her tweets, Nielsen was singing a different tune in a speech at the National Sheriff’s Association annual conference in New Orleans.
“It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of — don’t believe the press — they are very well taken care of,” Nielsen said.
She also said: “We will not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does for doing the job that the American people expect us to do.”
Fine, but what is the policy? Is it to separate families or not? This is where we have to read between the lines:
• Notice that Nielsen made reference to those seeking asylum at points of entry, and noted that adults breaking the law was justification for separating children from them.
• Protocol in this country has been not to send children to jail with their parents. That should not come as a surprise.
• Since the new zero-tolerance policy has translated into more adults being arrested for breaking the law, it would naturally follow that more children are being separated.
Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether we have a “policy” of separating families or not. If the policy is designed to arrest all who cross the border illegally, it will lead to families being separated.
The net result is the same — and we would be foolish to pretend it wasn’t intended as such — but Nielsen was probably not lying when she said there was no policy to separate families.
Should that distinction matter?
For those who didn’t see it, Laura Bush — wife of a Republican president who could hardly be called a liberal — wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling the situation cruel and immoral.
She summarized the issue neatly:
“The reason for these separations is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders,” Bush wrote.
For their parents. Exactly as Neilsen masterfully didn’t exactly say. Because no doubt the truth — we’re jailing the parents and let the kids be collateral damage — doesn’t play as well as simply denying there is any separation policy.
“I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart,” the former first lady continued.
Bush characterized “warehousing children in box stores” and plans for tent cities outside El Paso as “eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
Readers commenting on an AP story about the detainees on the Times Leader website weighed in on both sides, but many clearly sided with the government. Like Mrs. Bush, many summed up their view of the issue quite neatly.
“It isn’t the government putting the children at risk or traumatizing them. It is the parents that are putting them through this,” wrote someone using the pseudonym john_q_taxpayer.
He isn’t wrong that the parents bear responsibility.
Does that justify putting children in cages, however?
Roger DuPuis is the news editor for the Times Leader. His On Politics column appears every Tuesday. Reach him at [email protected]