A boy from the Anapra area observes a binational prayer performed by a group of religious presbyters by migrants on the border wall HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s Child Hostages

US President Donald Trump thinks that anti-immigrant rhetoric, with which he began his presidential campaign in June 2015, is what brought him victory, and that it will work again in November's midterm congressional elections and when runs again in 2020. He might be right.

WASHINGTON, DC – Suddenly, without much thought or planning, which is essentially how he operates, US President Donald Trump lit a match to his administration by approving a policy of separating migrant children from their parents as they arrived – many fleeing violence in Central America – at the southern border with Mexico. And then, by doing what he is intent on never doing – backing down – Trump created more problems for himself.

Whether the US actually has an immigration “crisis” is hotly debated. But Trump has one of his own: for all but his most devoted followers, he finally went too far. Stories of babies ripped from the arms of their mothers, a recording of small children sobbing, and government-released images showed older boys being kept in wire cages (observers have not yet been permitted to see the youngest children or older girls in captivity): all of this proved too much for the public.

Usually supine congressional Republicans panicked and told Trump and his team that his policy of tearing families apart could ruin their chances in November’s midterm elections. In fact, the policy of separating families was threatening to drive a wedge between Trump and even his evangelical followers. And they had been willing to overlook growing evidence of Trump’s sexual hijinks during his marriage to the first lady, Melania (including apparent payoffs to a porn star and others for silence), in exchange for policy influence and appointments of social conservatives to the Supreme Court and throughout the federal judiciary. Unusually for her, former first lady Laura Bush spoke out against the policy of taking children from their mothers.

One problem for Trump is that he is obsessed with appearing “strong.” While an authentically strong person can admit error and change course, America’s “strutter in chief” resists admitting any mistake. So Trump and his allies recited a catechism of evasions and excuses: they were simply enforcing the law and had not adopted a new policy.

But this was a problem of Trump’s own making. On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at the border in Texas, announced a new policy of “zero tolerance” for illegal border crossings: anyone suspected of crossing the border illegally would be detained and held for trial. (No more “catch and release,” or trusting illegals to return for trial.) Young children would not be detained with them; they would be held separately, which Sessions viewed as a deterrent to other would-be immigrants.

Then, when the chorus of objections began to rise, Trump and Sessions blamed the Democrats for the law they were supposedly applying. When that (false) argument failed to gain traction, Trump claimed that the problem could be solved only with legislation, though Democrats and even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham countered that the president could solve it “with a phone call.”

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Finally, the threat of political repercussions – the realization that the policy’s bad “optics” could have consequences – drove Trump to back down and issue an executive order requiring that parents and children be detained together. Lest his base think he had gone soft on immigration, Trump attempted to cover his retreat with harsh rhetoric, arguing that illegal immigrants would “infest” the US and that most were hardened criminals.

But now there was a new problem: the administration had made no plans for how to reunite the already separated parents and children, who had been sent to shelters and foster homes all over America, often in the dead of night. Parents and children are under the aegis of different federal agencies. The government claims that some 500 children have been reunited with a parent; but that still leaves at least 2,000 kids without their parents (if government estimates are to be believed). With some parents having been deported while their children remain in detention, it is possible that many of these families will never be reunited.

The US Congress long faced gridlock over immigration policy. A broad compromise has been elusive, and even limited efforts have failed. In January, a bipartisan Senate compromise was reached that would have funded Trump’s unnecessary border wall in exchange for allowing “dreamers” (who as children had been brought to the US illegally by their parents) to become citizens. (President Barack Obama had promised this by executive order, but Trump had reversed the policy upon becoming president.) But Trump, who initially favored the compromise, then backed away from it, under pressure from his immigration adviser, Stephen Miller (an aide to Sessions when he was in the Senate), and his chief of staff, John Kelly.

But to what extent does the US even face a “border crisis?” Illegal immigration has been low overall in recent years, though in both 2014 and recently, it has surged, driven often by a combination of motives. Many seek a more hopeful economic future. Many also are escaping gang violence, and some women have fled domestic abuse. Most of these people have been seeking asylum, which the Trump administration has tried to deny them. The avenues for asylum have, partly intentionally, become so crowded that many would-be immigrants have been forced to try to enter the US by illegal means.

Trump may regret that he issued the executive order reversing his own policy. Perhaps, he suggested, there should be no due process for undocumented immigrants; they should be sent back without getting the chance to make their case for asylum. (This proposal will likely remain rhetorical, given its blatant unconstitutionality.)

The US Border Patrol has now suspended prosecution of immigrants, because it has run out of space. So, whatever its preferences, the Trump administration is back to “catch and release.”

One reason for all of this chaos and tragedy is that Trump thinks his anti-immigrant posturing, with which he began his presidential campaign in June 2015, is what brought him victory. He is betting that the anti-immigration issue will be good for the Republicans in November and for his own political ambitions. He might yet be proven right.

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