The Trump administration’s “family separation” policy put conservatives in a tight spot. Republicans can defend subjecting adult “illegals” to cruel and unusual punishment without breaking a sweat. But the party of “family values” found it decidedly more difficult to rationalize the torture of tender-age children, no matter their immigration status. Thus, the Evangelical right finally discovered the limits of its self-abasement, and came out against the policy. Other conservatives cast about for an “anti-anti-family separation” argument — which is to say, for a means of attacking liberal opposition to the practice without actually defending family separation, itself.
And Democrats promptly provided them with one: On Twitter, progressives began circulating heart-rending images of migrant children trapped in cages — without realizing that those photos were taken when Barack Obama was still president. Conservatives pounced. Trump himself denounced the dishonesty of Democrats who tried to blame him for his predecessor’s cruelty. Reactionaries started poring over the more draconian side of Obama’s immigration record. Soon, they were resurfacing years-old, left-wing critiques of that record — including a piece I had written in January 2016 on the Obama administration’s mishandling of unaccompanied child migrants.
Conservatives found great satisfaction in decrying Democrats’ (often genuine) hypocrisies on immigration policy. In fact, they found that activity so satisfying, they completely forgot that Donald Trump’s entire presidential campaign proceeded from the premise that Barack Obama had refused to enforce America’s borders, and that this had created a crisis of illegal immigration (that Trump, alone, could fix).
And Trump forgot this along with them. On Monday, the president tweeted, “Such a difference in the media coverage of the same immigration policies between the Obama Administration and ours. Actually, we have done a far better job in that our facilities are cleaner and better run than were the facilities under Obama. Fake News is working overtime!”
It is important to note that Trump’s claim here is false. While there is some overlap between this administration’s policies and those of its predecessor, the Obama White House never tried to deter asylum seekers by separating them en masse from their children.
But the broader problem with Trump’s tweet is that it’s completely irreconcilable with virtually everything else he’s ever said about immigration policy in the United States. “Countless Americans who have died in recent years would be alive today if not for the open border policies of this administration,” Trump lamented in September 2016. Just last week, Trump denounced the “extremist open-border Democrats” — and argued that the party wanted “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13,” because they see MS-13 gang members as “potential voters!”
So: Democrats do not believe in the nation-state, and want to maximize illegal immigration to the United States for their own political benefit — and, also, the last time Democrats held the White House, they implemented the “same immigration policies” as Trump, except that the Democrats weren’t as nice to child migrants.
In recent days, several pundits have argued that Democrats should give Trump most of what he wants on immigration, for the sake of placating his nativist base. But that argument presumes that Trump’s base is concerned with the realities of American immigration policy, as opposed to the thrill of “owning the libs,” and putting nonwhite Americans in their place. Conservatives’ mutually contradictory critiques of Barack Obama’s immigration record suggest that this simply isn’t the case.