Ending zero tolerance should be Trump's next move


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Something remarkable happened last week. For the first time since he became president, Donald Trump acknowledged that he was wrong. He did so by signing an executive order ending his administration’s more-than-two-month-old policy of separating Central American immigrants who’ve illegally crossed the U.S.’ southern border from their children and holding both in separate detention facilities.

Trump signed the order on Wednesday, but not before lying repeatedly that he was powerless to do anything to stop the family separations. The president and his spokespeople also falsely blamed others — usually congressional Democrats — for the family separations, claiming they were only following a current law that Congress was unwilling to change.

The truth of course, which Trump acknowledged by signing the executive order, is that the family separations were his administration’s doing, no one else’s. The family separations began on April 7 when Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy that required the criminal prosecution of all immigrants caught at the border, including those seeking asylum in the U.S.

Under the previous policy, migrants caught trying to cross the border illegally were processed in civil court. Under Trump’s new policy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began jailing people who crossed illegally and sending their children to government-contracted shelters under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The policy change wasn’t exactly a surprise: Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly in fact told journalists as early as last year that separating families at the border was going to be an administration strategy to deter immigrants from entering the U.S. illegally. And Trump foreign policy aide Stephen Miller admitted to the The New York Times last month the family-separation policy’s purpose: to convince immigrants from Central America to stop trying to enter the U.S. illegally.

The problem with the family-separation policy was what’s typically gone wrong with most Trump policies, particularly those dealing with immigration: it wasn’t well thought out before it went into effect. Recall the chaos at airports when Trump’s travel ban was first imposed; no one informed either law enforcement or Homeland Security that the ban was coming.

Trump and his advisers assumed jailing people and stripping away their kids — “getting tough,” as the president likes to call it — would stop the flow of people illegally crossing the border. No one stopped to consider what would happen if the flow didn’t stop.

And of course it didn’t. And the reason it didn’t is because, unlike the lie Trump likes to tell that all of those crossing illegally are either drug dealers, human smugglers, M-13 gang members or all three, the truth is most are themselves crime victims in their native countries. They’re fleeing to the U.S., enduring the hardship of a thousand-mile journey and exposing themselves and their children to all sorts of risks, because they’re desperate for a life free of murder, crime and corruption. To them, the risk of being locked up in a U.S. jail and losing their kids at the border is nothing compared to the real horrors they face back home.

Thankfully, stripping kids from their parents is still no small matter to a majority of Americans, including some of those who’ve staunchly stood by this president. To date, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents and detained because of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. The images of those kids locked in cages, their parents nowhere in sight, finally became too much for members of the political party that claims to be the defender of “family values.” Ashamed of what the president was doing in their name, Republican lawmakers, many no doubt worried about the family separations’ impact on their re-election chances this fall, finally showed some courage and demanded Trump end them.  

Of course, immigration policy isn’t a simple matter of one day deciding to strip kids from parents you’re locking up and then deciding to stop doing it the next. There are consequences to both decisions, none of which Trump fully considered. That’s why the day after suspending family separations, the president had no clear plan what to do with the 2,300 children already taken from their parents. There were reports the government was hurriedly trying to set up beds for as many as 20,000 migrants on U.S. military bases, but it was unclear if those beds were just for children or their families.

Trump’s Justice Department gave us a hint when it went to federal court on Thursday to try and get a 1997 court settlement reversed that limits to 20 days how long migrant children can be detained with their families. That’s an indication Trump’s “fix” for the problem he caused is long-term incarceration of migrant families — a repeat of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. A federal judge’s decision to allow that, which isn’t likely, almost certainly would make this crisis even worse.

What’s more likely to happen is what should have happened as soon as someone in the Trump administration got the idea to start prosecuting every person crossing the border illegally: Say that’s foolish and put their energies into ways of managing illegal immigration that might actually work. One we’ve heard that makes sense is outfitting people who’ve crossed the border illegally with electronic monitoring devices as a way to ensure they show up for their civil court appearances. We’re sure there are others.