Basic decency aside, there’s no question that one of the president’s really sore spots politically is his administration’s handling of migrant children at or near the southern border. The original policy of separating migrant families drew global condemnation and was also blasted by Trump’s conservative religious allies here at home. More recent revelations of terrible conditions afflicting children in detention facilities for migrants have renewed widespread cries of outrage, punctuated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s description of them as being like “concentration camps.”
But given the obvious sensitivities of the situation, it’s remarkable how erratic and politically insensitive Team Trump has been in dealing with the lethal impression that it is deliberately mistreating children as a sort of extreme version of a deterrent to future migrants. The administration has presented four quite different but equally irresponsible strategies in just the last week or so:
1. Deny any responsibility for decent conditions: Perhaps the Justice Department missed the memo on how this sort of thing sounds, but it sounds really bad, as GQ reported:
[T]his week, a lawyer representing the Department of Justice argued before Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that the administration was not required to provide detained children with soap, toothbrushes, and blankets, despite a 1997 settlement establishing that migrant minors in federal custody be kept in “safe and sanitary” conditions. Judge A. Wallace Tashima, one of three judges presiding, asked lawyer Sarah Fabian, “If you don’t have a toothbrush, if you don’t have soap, if you don’t have a blanket, it’s not safe and sanitary. Wouldn’t everybody agree to that?”
It’s one of those arguments you make in which you lose if you win — not that DoJ won in any respect.
2. Move the kids around: There are multiple reports emerging from the shadowland of the migrant detention system that whenever negative attention emerges about the treatment of migrants, and particularly the children, they tend to disappear from the immediate scene of the crime. The AP has one story:
The U.S. government has removed most of the children from a remote Border Patrol station in Texas following reports that more than 300 children were detained there, caring for each other with inadequate food, water and sanitation.
Just 30 children remained at the facility near El Paso Monday, said Rep. Veronica Escobar after her office was briefed on the situation by an official with Customs and Border Protection.
Attorneys who visited the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, last week said older children were trying to take care of infants and toddlers, The Associated Press first reported Thursday. They described a 4-year-old with matted hair who had gone without a shower for days, and hungry, inconsolable children struggling to soothe one another. Some had been locked for three weeks inside the facility, where 15 children were sick with the flu and another 10 were in medical quarantine …
Were conditions for the children improved? Hard to say:
Although it’s unclear where all the children held at Clint have been moved, Escobar said some were sent to another facility on the north side of El Paso called Border Patrol Station 1. Escobar said it’s a temporary site with roll-out mattresses, showers, medical facilities and air conditioning.
But Clara Long, an attorney who interviewed children at Border Patrol Station 1 last week, said conditions were not necessarily better there.
“One boy I spoke with said his family didn’t get mattresses or blankets for the first two nights and he and his mom came down with a fever,” said Long, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “He said there were no toothbrushes, and it was very, very cold.”
3. Blame Democrats: Without acknowledging that they are implicitly holding migrants hostage to their broader demands for funding the administration’s many “border crisis” priorities, the president and vice-president are blaming congressional Democrats for refusing to rubber-stamp an emergency appropriations package that includes money for managing migrants:
On Sunday, faced with mounting reports of grave conditions at border detention centers overwhelmed by an influx of families and children crossing the border, President Trump and Vice President Pence responded by blaming congressional Democrats. News anchors asked what they planned to do if they were impatient with Congress, but Trump and Pence remained focused on demanding action on a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill intended for the border crisis, with $2.88 billion reserved for unaccompanied minors.
“We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances,” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press,” soon after agreeing that conditions were “terrible.” “The Democrats aren’t even approving giving us money. Where is the money? You know what? The Democrats are holding up the humanitarian aid.”
Democrats, of course, object to many other parts of the bill outside the “humanitarian aid,” including expansion of the government’s capacity for detaining many, many more migrants and other undocumented Americans. But this my-way-or-the-highway approach provides those who want to give the administration cover a convenient excuse. If humane treatment of migrants was truly a Trump priority, it’s obvious a quick deal could be struck with Democrats on this limited subject — or perhaps the president would treat that as a “national emergency” requiring the reprogramming of existing funds, like his border wall.
4. Blow everything up with mass deportations: It’s unclear if this was a planned head-fake or the product of confusion (like the countermanded military strike on Iran), but the administration ordered and then temporarily delayed plans to begin mass deportations of undocumented immigrants all over the country:
President Trump on Saturday delayed plans for nationwide raids to deport undocumented families, but he threatened to unleash Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in two weeks if Democrats do not submit to changes in asylum law they have long opposed …
Immigration agents had been planning to sweep into several immigrant communities in 10 major cities — including Miami, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Chicago — beginning on Sunday. Officials said on Friday that they had targeted about 2,000 families in a show of force intended to demonstrate their strict enforcement of immigration laws. Children of immigrants — some of whom were born in the United States — had faced the prospect of being forcibly separated from their undocumented parents.
In other words: You think these kids at the border have it tough? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
We’ll see what happens in two weeks. But it’s reasonably clear the president and his agents are yet again making it difficult to determine if they are evil or just incompetent.