The Trump administration recently established a policy of separating families who cross the U.S. border illegally, including those who enter our country so as to assert their legal right to seek asylum. Which is to say: If a mother in Honduras gets on the wrong side of local gangs — and flees to the United States with her children to seek asylum from their retribution — U.S. authorities will treat her children as “unaccompanied minors” and detain them in separate facilities while she presses her case.
Or, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions put it, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
The justification for this policy is that it will deter undocumented immigrants from entering the country illegally — which is to say, between official ports of entry. But human rights groups have reported that border officials frequently (illegally) refuse to accept asylum seekers who present themselves at official entry points. And the Trump administration has produced no evidence that “family separation” significantly deters undocumented families from entering the U.S. illegally.
In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) this week, White House chief of staff John Kelly was asked whether he approved of this policy. He responded by assuring the public that he does not believe undocumented immigrants are bad people — only that they are too poorly educated to assimilate into American society:
Are you in favor of this new move announced by the attorney general early this week that if you cross the border illegally even if you’re a mother with your children [we’re going] to arrest you? We’re going to prosecute you, we’re going to send your kids to a juvenile shelter?
The name of the game to a large degree. Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. Some of them are not. But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from – fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English, obviously that’s a big thing. They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well, they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.
There are a few flaws in this argument. It is certainly true that Spanish-speaking people who grew up in rural parts of Central America where they did not receive a high-school-level education will face challenges in integrating into the economic and cultural life of the United States. But such immigrants have a pretty solid track record of overcoming those challenges. In the very same interview, Kelly evinces support for giving legal status to 1.8 million Dreamers who meet the requirements of the DACA program — which is to say, the 1.8 million children of undocumented immigrants who succeeded in assimilating into America well enough to complete high school or serve in the U.S. forces and maintain a pristine record of abiding by our nation’s laws.
Further, as the baby-boomer generation ages into retirement — and millennials wait longer to start families than their predecessors —America’s labor-force participation rate is declining, thereby constraining growth and putting pressure on the government’s finances. Many of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States do not require advanced skills; America has plenty of use for more retail, hospitality, and agricultural workers.
But, of course, the most conspicuous flaw in Kelly’s argument is that it does precisely nothing to justify separating asylum seekers from their children.
And the White House chief of staff’s attempt to justify the administration’s decision to strip temporary protected status (TPS) from hundreds of thousands of longtime legal U.S. residents was even more lackluster:
I think we should fold all of the TPS people that have been here for a considerable period of time and find a way for them to be on a path to citizenship. … Take the Central Americans that have been here 20-plus years. … By doing what she’s done, Secretary Nielsen once again is forcing the United States Congress to do something. I mean, I can’t tell you the number of times in my hearings when they would ask me about why we’re doing this, so what is your philosophy on immigration or whatever. I just said, “Look, you make the laws. I execute the laws.” I can’t pick and choose what laws to enforce. I would be, I should be thrown out of the job if I do that.
The idea that the Trump administration was legally obligated to revoke the legal status of over 1 million longtime U.S. residents (a figure that includes 700,000 Dreamers and more than 300,000 TPS recipients) is simply false. Multiple federal courts have found the DACA program constitutional; there is reason why both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations routinely renewed “temporary” protections for TPS holders: U.S. law requires the Executive branch to consider whether TPS recipients’ home countries are stable enough to accept a large number of deportees before it terminates their protected status. And as the Washington Post revealed this week, career officials in Trump’s departments of State and Homeland Security believe that Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti are not — and yet the White House ignored their advice.
In reality, the Trump administration did not move to expel well-assimilated, longtime U.S. residents because only Congress had the legal authority to extend their legal status, but rather because the White House thought it could force Congress to pass restrictions to legal immigration (that Congress does not want to pass) by holding Dreamers and TPS-holders hostage to that demand. A bipartisan group of senators reached agreement on a bill that would have provided those populations with legislative protection from deportation — the White House shot it down.
John Kelly surely understands all this. He just doesn’t want you to.