The Genesis of Trump’s Family-Separation Policy

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An immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors in Brownsville, Texas. Photo: ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS

When Donald Trump first proposed to ban all Muslim immigrants from the United States two and a half years and a thousand Trump controversies ago, the Republican front-runner was asked if he would have supported the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he equivocated, before proceeding to express his general sympathy for the concept. “It’s a tough thing. It’s tough,” he said. “But you know, war is tough. And winning is tough. We don’t win anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We’re not a strong country anymore.”

One of the things this comment revealed was Trump’s odd belief that the internment of loyal Japanese-Americans had somehow helped win the war, rather than divert human and material resources from the war effort in service to a cruel, racialized panic, as historians generally believe. More was at work here than simple confusion. This historical digression proved to be a prophetic guide to an as-yet-unimaginable future Trump presidency. It displayed one of Trump’s foundational values: his contempt for human and legal rights, especially those of racial minorities, and his atavistic fixation with toughness as both the source of the country’s (imagined) historical decline and the key to its restoration.

The Trump presidency is a surreal experience in part because it is so difficult to discern the reliability of the president’s rhetoric as a guide to action. The family-separation crisis is an important moment in Trump’s presidency because it collapses the chasm between word and deed. The brutal vision of the American state Trump has been painting for three years has finally materialized before our eyes.

The family-separation policy is the physical incarnation of Trump’s answer to the question of whether he would have relocated Japanese-Americans. Here were weeping migrant children, pulled from their parents and held in cages. The federal government was repurposing new holding facilities especially for children. The bureaucratic chaos and confusion were part of the punishment. One public defender described a judge incredulous that the parents whose children had been torn from their arms were given no information as to where they had been taken. (“If someone at the jail takes your wallet, they give you a receipt. They take your kids, and you get nothing? Not even a slip of paper?”)

The weaponized disarray of government officials at ground level seemed to follow the pattern of fog emanating from Washington. The Trump administration was perhaps employing a brilliant disinformation campaign; more likely, this was a hopelessly chaotic attempt to obfuscate its own policy. Trump blamed the separation of parents from children on unnamed laws passed by Democrats. “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” tweeted Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who told reporters that she considered the suggestion that her department was using family separation as a deterrent against illegal immigration “offensive.”

It was an insultingly obvious lie. When Trump took office, children were not being separated from their parents. Now they were. No law had been passed in the meantime. The Democrats, being shut out of power, didn’t even have the opportunity to pass a law.

The month before, though, Nielsen’s predecessor, John Kelly, the current White House chief of staff, had defended family separation in precisely those terms. Asked about sending children of migrants to juvenile shelters, Kelly replied, “A big name of the game is deterrence.” The reporter stated, “Family separation stands as a pretty tough deterrent.” Kelly replied, “It could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent. A much faster turnaround on asylum seekers.” Asked if it was “cruel or heartless,” Kelly casually explained, “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they 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.”

Kelly’s comments help explain why the administration imposed such a horrific policy in the first place. The Trump immigration agenda has failed utterly by not only the standards of human decency but by its own metrics. Border crossings, which had fallen in early 2017, were back up. There is no prospect of getting Mexico to pay for the wall—Trump couldn’t even get the U.S. Congress to pay for all of it. In May, the president subjected Nielsen to a 30-minute tirade, questioning her toughness and demanding a crackdown. The administration began pulling children away from parents because it could think of no other way to satisfy Trump’s demands.

It turned out that even Trump himself found the images of terrified children too uncomfortable, or at least inconvenient, to tolerate. In this instance, Trump’s couch-potato management style instigated a rare positive course correction. “The president watches more cable news than most Americans,” a source told Axios. “So he experienced an overdose of the outrage and the media frenzy.” Trump announced that the policy, which his administration had insisted never existed, would be reversed.

The “reversal” was carried out with the same deft touch as the original policy, with confusion and disarray left in its wake. Even after Trump’s decision, children who had been forcibly “unaccompanied” were showing up at New York airports escorted by Homeland Security agents, and no officials seemed to know what would become of the 2,300 children already separated from their parents.

Interviews with various Trump supporters reflected the confusion over the intentions of Trump’s policy. The stalwarts insisted that the refugees had brought it on themselves by taking their children across the border or that the entire episode had been fabricated by the Fake News media.

Yet the crisis flowed naturally and perhaps inevitably from the language of dehumanization Trump deploys as a matter of course. The song “The Snake,” which Trump has recited repeatedly at rallies, is his favorite immigration metaphor. He enjoys calling MS-13 “animals” while conflating the violent gang with the people fleeing it. Democrats, he insists via tweet, “want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.”

It is possible to dismiss this kind of rhetoric, which historically tends to precede state-sponsored terror, as mere pandering. But there is no political rationale that could explain Trump’s decades-long habit of praising the repressive governing style of the world’s dictators. He recently enthused that Kim Jong Un “took over” and “ran it tough,” using his preferred description of the brutal but necessary measures hard men must take. Citing the public demonstrations of devotion North Koreans must make toward their leaders upon pain of arrest, Trump cooed, “His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor.”

Appearing a few days later on Fox News, Trump was still marveling at the toughness of his North Korean counterpart. “He’s the head of the country, and I mean he’s the strong head. He speaks and his people sit up in attention,” he said, gesturing at the White House behind him. “I want my people to do the same.” That would seem to explain why the entire administration cooperated with a policy many of them appeared to regard as immoral. Trump is selecting for and insisting upon obsequiousness and mindless devotion in his staff. Even if it requires the violation of basic human decency, they are prepared to follow orders.

*This article appears in the June 25, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Genesis of Trump’s Family-Separation Policy