In early May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that anyone crossing the US border without permission would be prosecuted as a criminal. This was a major step, even for a notoriously nativist administration: The new policy meant sending adults to jails, and since migrant children can't be held in those jails under US law, families are now being separated by the government, with roughly 2,000 children split up from their parents in just six weeks.
This includes some families who are fleeing abusive and unsafe environments in Central America and hope to get asylum in the US. (Last week, Sessions declared that domestic violence victims, among others, could no longer get asylum status.) There are reports of parents being told their children are being taken merely to have baths by officers who then split the kids from the parents, and at least one account of a baby being taken away while breastfeeding from its mother. A worker at a Tucson, Arizona, shelter where some of these kids ended up quit in protest, telling the LA Times the facility was understaffed and unable to deal with kids so distressed that some were suicidal.
There have been scenes not altogether unlike these at previous moments in American history. In 2014, families were detained (with parents and children together) by the Obama administration in conditions that were decried by advocates. But the widespread, routine separation of children from parents is wholly the brainchild of the Trump administration; people like far-right policy advisor Stephen Miller regard it as a way to dissuade migrants from crossing the border. The pain and distress isn't an incidental byproduct of the policy, it is the stated goal. The theory is that if border crossers suffer, fewer people will try to follow their lead. "A big name of the game is deterrence," is how White House Chief of Staff John Kelly described the aim in a May interview with NPR.
This is so self-evidently horrible that few Republicans have been willing to defend it out loud. Religious conservatives, including the pro-Trump evangelical leader Franklin Graham, have condemned the policy. US Senator Susan Collins of Maine called it "traumatizing" to children and "contrary to our values in this country" on Face the Nation this Sunday. Fred Upton, a moderate GOP congressman from Michigan, said in a statement that "it's time for this ugly and inhumane practice to end." Former first lady Laura Bush called it "cruel" and "immoral" in a Washington Post op-ed. Even Donald Trump seemed to come out against the policy in his own uniquely dishonest way, telling reporters, “I hate the children being taken away" before blaming the Democrats for a nonexistent "law" requiring the breakup of families.
But as outrage builds, Republicans have been doing what they've become so good at in the Trump era: nothing. There's a Democrat-backed bill that would ban the separation of migrant families except in cases of abuse, but Collins and all the other Senate Republicans have declined to endorse it. (Collins claims that it would prevent criminals from being arrested near the border.) Some GOP lawmakers have called for Trump to stop splitting up families, but their passion on the issue apparently stops short of using their legislative powers to force his hand. If there were one issue that seemed likely to have veto-proof support in Congress right now, it's this one. Yet Republicans are still sitting on their hands.
Meanwhile, Trump seems to believe that he can use the children as leverage to get Democrats to agree to other policy changes, including a slashing of legal immigration. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said as much in a Meet the Press interview, tying the issue to immigration reform more broadly. Melania Trump's office echoed that sentiment in a statement that said she "hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform."
Talk of compromise, at this point, is pretty empty. Just four months ago, a set of four immigration bills were voted on individually in the Senate and all four were rejected, with Trump's favored plan proving the least popular of the bunch. In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan has agreed to put a pair of Republican-penned proposals up for votes—one more conservative, one a "compromise" with GOP moderates—but these don't seem likely to pass, either. (Republicans are claiming that the compromise bill would end family separations when in fact it would do no such thing.)
If the issue seems complicated, that's largely because the people in charge of the country are misleading the public. Department of Homeland Security boss Kirstjen Nielsen claimed falsely Sunday that, "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border," then defended the practice on Monday by describing it as "enforcing laws passed by Congress.”
In reality, the Trump administration could stop the separation of families tomorrow if it wanted to. Republicans in Congress, if they were really troubled by all this, could unite with their Democratic colleagues and pass a bill with two-thirds majorities in both houses to change things. That they have not yet is a sign that they are fine with the status quo, no matter how despicable it may be.
There may come a point when Trump's brutal crackdown on immigrants, which encompasses so much more than just family separation, causes moderate Republicans to break from him and actually vote against his agenda. But then again, this episode suggests such a point may not exist. If Republicans have accepted this latest atrocity with barely a whimper, what else will they accept?
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