As political maxims go, it seems beyond reproach: Don’t go after kids. Yet, once again, the Trump administration is proving quite the innovator when it comes to breaking political norms. In five distinct policy areas, the administration has doubled down on policies that impose disproportionate, sometimes fatal, burdens on children—especially black and brown ones.
To be sure, Trump does not justify these policies by their anti-kid effects. Children’s suffering is either predictable collateral damage or a bargaining chip in a larger cultural and political conflict. But this just makes the administration’s multifront war on kids more baffling. It courts controversy and undermines the White House’s own rhetoric of righteous victimhood. So this question is worth asking: Why choose policies that so visibly harm children?
Let’s start with the most obvious and well-publicized front of the war on kids: the separation and detention of families at the US-Mexico border. Since 2001, the government has had family-detention centers for those seized at the southern border. But since October 2017, about 2,000 children have been separated from migrant parents, as a result of the administration’s decision to criminally prosecute almost all adult migrants. That zero-tolerance posture assures separation, because children cannot be held alongside parents or guardians in federal jail.
Rather than mitigating the resulting harms to children, the administration first sought to exploit them. The White House tendered separated families as a “bargaining chip” in congressional negotiations over the Dreamers. Separately, immigration officials described the practice of taking children away from parents as a “deterrent” to others thinking of claiming asylum at the southern border.
A second, underappreciated example of Trump’s cruelty toward children is the travel ban. Despite the White House’s claims about security concerns, in practice the ban disproportionately affects children, as well as women and the elderly.
Understanding why requires a bit of knowledge about US visas. Before the ban, a traveler from Syria, Libya, Iran, or another affected country had to obtain a visa from a US consulate. But to do so, he or she had to prove “to the satisfaction of the Attorney General” their eligibility. Meeting this burden of proof was always easier for children than for adults. Adults, for example, might have criminal records or connections to proscribed groups. In contrast, children almost never do. So they had less to prove. Before the travel ban, therefore, kids could more easily obtain visas than adults, especially adult men. And when the travel ban came into effect, it was kids rather than adults who were disproportionately barred—sometimes with tragic consequences.