This is where we stand: A few months ago, a president who lost the popular vote introduced a “zero tolerance” policy on undocumented immigrants. In order to implement it, his attorney general—a man with a known history of racism—began detaining and prosecuting all immigrants and asylum-seekers who unlawfully crossed the southwestern border. Armed agents forcibly separated immigrant parents from their children, some as young as 3 months old, and redesignated them as unaccompanied minors. The children were put in chain-link cages, foster homes, tent camps, and detention centers. Some of the parents were deported without their kids. Others were pressured to give up their asylum claims in exchange for getting their children back. At least one asylum-seeking father committed suicide. The administration did not keep proper records about the children it took away and, in some cases, even destroyed records that could make family reunification possible. And the worst part? This is just a trial run.
Immigration is Donald Trump’s core issue: It’s what got him elected in 2016 and what he hopes will get him reelected in 2020. As long as his supporters continue to respond to his words and deeds on this issue, he’s not going to back down. This is why he lies about crime rates among immigrants, spouts off hateful language about “animals” and “not so innocent” children, and collapses distinctions between violent gangs and the people seeking safety from them. His intention has always been to halt brown and black migration to the United States, while encouraging newcomers from “places like Norway.”
In the face of something as morally repugnant as the mass kidnapping and jailing of children, it is tempting to think that the crisis cannot last. After all, media coverage and a popular outcry forced the president to sign an executive order rescinding the policy. A federal judge ordered the government to reunite the families without delay. And NGOs and ordinary citizens organized to pay bail for some of the parents. But the fact remains that around 2,500 children still await reunification with their parents. Toddlers are being brought to immigration court without legal representation. Older kids in migrant shelters are told not to hug a sibling, not to cry, not to write a letter in their dorm rooms. If they “misbehave,” they are injected with sedatives. Every day that goes by compounds their trauma.
And every day also gives the administration a new chance to adjust its policy until it becomes viable. Although he formally ended family separation, Trump was very explicit that he intends to keep the zero-tolerance policy. This means that every person who crosses the southwestern border outside of a port of entry will continue to be prosecuted, regardless of individual circumstances. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has told refugees that they should present themselves only at designated ports of entry, but border agents at some of these ports have been turning asylum-seekers away. At the same time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has imposed sharp new limits on who can qualify for asylum. The result is a massively punitive approach that puts thousands of migrants and refugees in immigration jails. Family separation was just one tool in this vast apparatus, and now that it has been taken off the table, the administration wants to replace it with indefinite family detention.
We have seen this incremental strategy before with the Muslim ban. Its first version, which went into effect in January 2017, targeted seven Muslim countries and led to absolute chaos at the airports, followed by massive protests and legal challenges. So the administration modified its initial order by adding a few exceptions, such as current green-card holders, and put forward a second ban. When that second version was also challenged in court, the president signed a proclamation that barred North Korean visitors and some Venezuelan government officials from entering the country, along with nationals of Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. It was this final version that the Supreme Court upheld this June.
In other words, a proposal that seemed completely insane when Trump was a candidate (“a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”) has now, after enough test runs and with Trump firmly ensconced in the White House, become acceptable. All it took was the addition of a few dozen visitors from North Korea and Venezuela for the Roberts Court to rule that a policy that affects 135 million people from five Muslim countries was “facially neutral toward religion.” Now that the principle has been established, Trump can add any Muslim country he wants to the list. Voilà—Muslim ban.
There is no reason to expect that indefinite family detention (i.e., immigrant internment) will be any different. The administration has already asked the Pentagon to prepare housing at military bases for 32,000 migrants, of whom 20,000 would be children. That immigrant internment is immoral is quite clear. That it is hugely costly and likely ineffectual will be revealed soon enough. But that it is even being discussed suggests a disregard for nonwhite life that is not foreign to this country’s bloody history, nor even its recent past.
The question is: What will each of us, in our own limited way, do about this? Well, we need to fight on more than one front. There’s a Supreme Court seat whose confirmation is not at all certain. There’s the effort to flip Congress in November. There’s the struggle to take back the statehouses. It’s not enough to sign a check or attend a march. We have to put in the actual labor—of knocking on doors, making phone calls, and showing up for one another. If Trump wants to impose zero tolerance, we have to fight back with zero tolerance.