By now, the cruel and intended consequences of Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy have become chillingly clear. Over 2,300 children, some younger than 4, have been forcibly separated from their parents by Border Patrol agents and held in what can only be described as cages in overcrowded detention centers and shelters across the Southwest. A former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, now warehouses almost 1,500 boys, who are let outside to play for just two hours a day. A mother from Honduras reported that authorities snatched her infant from her while she was breastfeeding. Multiple parents described being told their children were being taken for a bath, only to have them disappeared. One man, Marco Antonio Muñoz, 39, committed suicide in a padded jail cell after being torn from his wife and 3-year-old son.
Yes, this is happening in America. This sense of dislocation—Is this who we are now?—has prompted a wave of condemnation: everyone from progressives to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to conservatives like Senator Lindsey Graham and former first lady Laura Bush, whose husband created ICE. The administration’s response to this outpouring has been a preposterous farrago of disinformation. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen opted for bald denial: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border,” she tweeted, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 as justification and also claimed, falsely, that the country was in danger of a “stampede” at the border. Fact: Border apprehensions are near a four-decade low. For his part, the president has repeatedly asserted that he has no choice but to follow the law and blamed Democrats for “their forced family breakup at the Border.”
This is a lie. There is no requirement that the Department of Homeland Security criminally prosecute all immigrants who cross the border unlawfully, and there’s no cause to separate children from parents absent that pretext. The current crisis is purely the result of the Trump administration’s “simple decision,” in the words of senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, “to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period.” It is also a crisis that the administration has deliberately stoked by slow-walking asylum seekers at legal points of entry and by shutting the door to refugees in general. The president can choose to end all this tomorrow, and if he doesn’t, Congress should do it for him. The Keep Families Together Act, endorsed by all 49 Senate Democrats and independents, would be a start—but as of press time, not one “compassionate conservative” had come on board.
Recognizing this truth, however, shouldn’t blind us to another one: that the decades-long criminalization of immigration is, in fact, a bipartisan creation. It was Bill Clinton who criminalized low-level immigration offenses and vastly increased the size of the Border Patrol. Operation Streamline, the federal initiative being used to prosecute border crossers in mass trials—often while they’re shackled together—was pioneered by George W. Bush. And yes, it was Barack Obama who massively increased the criminal prosecution of adult border crossers and, in response to a wave of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in 2014, pursued a kinder, gentler version of deterrence that nonetheless saw children and parents locked up in privately run detention centers for long periods of time.
“This crisis is, at its core, about the Trump decision to separate children and their parents,” says Representative Pramila Jayapal, one of the organizers of a June 30 march on Washington to protest Trump’s policy. “But it is also showing how much abuse is built into our sprawling, out-of-control immigrant-detention network. We need to seize this moment to make lasting reforms.” A bill she’s introduced, the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act, now has 93 co-sponsors. Its passage should mark the beginning of a deeper reckoning with how this country treats those who come here yearning to breathe free.