This Moment in Time

The Trump administration's approach to immigrant children is a serious test of our national morality.

My family and I recently visited Ellis Island. It was a reminder of something I already knew, which was that for much of history we had an essentially open border.  I was struck that, according to information at the museum on the island, that only 2% of the immigrants who came through that port of entry were sent back home (due to inability to work).  Many (most, I expect) did not speak English and the vast majority were quite poor.  A huge number were fleeing terrible conditions in the homelands (sound familiar?).  Oddly, this past did not destroy America–rather, it objectively strengthened it.  Those facts underscore that any present day argument about “the law” is highly flawed.  Not only is the law mutable, its application is subject to interpretation.  So, there is no need to pretend like what we are doing now, or how we are doing it, simply has to be.  Our immigration laws were not handed down by God to man on granite tablets.  Indeed, they are in of need a massive overhaul.

However, a massive overhaul is not in the works. Instead, we have a president who thinks that a border wall (that, I guess, Mexico is not going to pay for) will fix the issue (spoiler alert:  no, it won’t) and an administration which thinks that cruelty towards families will act as a deterrent to immigration.

This dates back to at least last year.  Here’s what then DHS Secretary Kelly said in March of 2017 (via CNN):

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly confirmed that the department is considering separating children from their parents at the border.


He continued: “Yes I’m considering (that), in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents. … It’s more important to me, Wolf, to try to keep people off of this awful network.”

Since April, and because the Attorney General has announced a “zero tolerance” policy, it appears that what Kelly described is now in place.

Via WaPo:

Manuel Padilla Jr., Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley, told The Washington Post on Thursday that his agents had separated 568 parents from children as young as 5 since the zero-tolerance policy was announced on April 6.

But that figure represented only half the number of parents who could have been prosecuted for entering the country illegally, leaving Border Patrol plenty of room to ramp up family separations.

“We are trying to build to 100 percent prosecution of everybody that is eligible,” he said. “We are not there yet, but that is our intent.”


Nationwide, nearly 2,000 minors were taken from their parents from April 19 through May 31, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security.


Dressed in green fatigues, the 32-year member of the Border Patrol was unapologetic. He said years of lax enforcement had only encouraged more violators.

“This zero-tolerance initiative changes that completely,” he said. “We cannot just have this surge of immigration without any consequences.”

Padilla’s perspective is important, because while there have certainly been plenty to critique in past administrations, this is a new approach by the current administration to actively leverage separating children from parents.

What makes this current moment worse is that the President of the United States, as well as the Attorney General, the top two law enforcement officials in the country, are actively pursuing this cruel policy option while, as Doug Mataconis correctly noted, lying about a legal requirement to do so. And, to make things even worse, Trump is actively lying about who is responsible for the current policy as well as trying to leverage his own administration’s cruelty as a legislative bargaining chip.

A big part of this present moment is the degree to which supporters are comfortable being lied to.

Via the LAT:

“I hate the children being taken away,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Friday morning in front of the White House. “The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law.”

A short time later, he wrote on Twitter, “The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda.”

These statements are galling for several reasons.  First, the current policy approach is one his administration is putting into practice:

There is no law that says children must be taken from their parents if they cross the border unlawfully, and previous administrations have made exceptions for those traveling with minor children when prosecuting immigrants for illegal entry. A “zero tolerance” policy created by the president in April and put into effect last month by the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, allows no such exceptions, Mr. Trump’s advisers say.

Second, the notion that the minority party is responsible is absurd.  The Democrats lack the ability to bring legislation forward for debate in both chambers.  It is therefore not even possible for them to act in any substantive way.

Third, it is not an issue of “their” law–there is just the law of the United States and if it is unjust, those in government ought to work to change it (especially if one is to take the President at his word, but alas that is a quaint notion at best).

Meanwhile, just this week, the Attorney General of the United States has announced what an essay in Foreign Affairs called Sessions’ Draconian Asylum Decision

On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a radical decisionthat will undoubtedly result in death or significant harm to some of the world’s most vulnerable women: victims of domestic violence who live in countries that do not, or cannot, protect them from their abusive partners. Over the past two decades, the United States has provided a safe haven to many of these women through its asylum laws. In a heartless move that flouts established U.S. law and international human rights standards, Sessions found that a domestic violence victim from El Salvador—perhaps the most dangerous country on earth in which to be a woman—would not qualify for asylum, even though her own country had utterly failed to protect her.

Ultimately this is all being fed by xenophobia and racism.  This administration has actively cultivated fear of immigrants–whether we are talking refugees from Syria, people fleeing violence from Central America, DACA recipients, or Mexicans trying to find work.

Indeed, Trump started his campaign with racially charged, xenophobic rhetoric.  Lest we forget:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.

It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably — probably — from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.

I was standing in the baggage claim area of Reagan National and the TV was playing the speech live and I thought he was nuts and that there was no way he could be nominated, let alone elected.  I was, rather publicly, wrong about that.  But that the man who started his bid for the White House with those words is now overseeing a cruel policy of using parental separation to deter immigration is no surprise. And let’s not forget that Trump broke DACA, thereby victimizing a group of persons in a very difficult legal state not of their own making. He also attacked the notion that we should help Syrian refugees and took away protections from Salvadorans who have lived in the US for decades (as I discussed here).

Further, the president and his supporters constantly talk about the threat posed by immigrants and frequently conflates “immigrants” and MS13.

The bottom line is this:  to use the police power of the state to consciously inflict pain on a vulnerable group to create political leverage is wrong, if not evidence of an authoritarian mindset.  Further, when that action is aimed a a minority group in the context of anti-minority rhetoric, it is impossible not to also call it racist.

We should not ignore, dismiss, rationalize, or minimize these facts.

I understand that there are legitimate concerns about border security.  I accept that there are honest differences of opinion about what policies ought to be in place regarding said security. But those who are defending this policy of consciously using children as leverage need to take a hard look at what they are supporting, and why.

A tangential example to what is going on at the moment can be found in today’s NYT: A Legal Resident, an Arrest by ICE and Father’s Day in Jail

Jose Luis Garcia was watering his lawn and drinking his morning coffee outside his home in Southern California last Sunday when federal immigration authorities showed up.

Mr. Garcia — a 62-year-old Mexican immigrant who has been a legal resident since the 1980s, according to his family — shouted for help.

He spilled his coffee on the sidewalk as agents arrested him, said his daughter Natalie Garcia, who ran outside and saw her father handcuffed. She said the authorities told her they had a warrant for his arrest related to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge that was resolved nearly two decades ago.


Mr. Garcia and his family are among those who have been swept up in the Trump administration’s immigration policy, which cracks down not only on illegal immigrants but also on legal residents. The administration makes it a priority to remove those who have pending criminal charges or any convictions in their past.


In 2001, Mr. Garcia was convicted of a misdemeanor stemming from a dispute with his wife, according to his lawyer and his family. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Superior Court said he was sentenced to 25 days in jail and three years of probation. Ms. Garcia said that her father completed probation.

It was a domestic dispute they settled years ago, and “they are still married to this day,” Ms. Garcia said.

Who, precisely, is it helping to target a green card holder for deportation for a misdemeanor conviction (for which a sentence was served) from 17 years ago?

A spokeswoman for ICE said in a statement that Mr. Garcia was arrested because he “has past criminal convictions that make him amenable to removal from the United States.”

The spokeswoman would not specify the convictions, citing privacy rules. Ms. Garcia said she was not aware of other convictions in her father’s past.

That is a terrible answer, and draws my mind to the writings of Hannah Arendt and the origins of totalitarian government, as she wrote of the mindless bureaucracy of authoritarian functionaries.  When I hear people say that they are just enforcing the law, I hear echos of “I was just following orders.”  On the one hand, I recognize that it sounds alarmist to even draw such comparisons to the US government, yet on the other we need to take stock of what we are doing in regards to immigration policy, especially as it pertains to ICE behaving as described above.

What do we stand for, America?  History is not going to look kindly on these events.

(Photo by me).

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Borders and Immigration, Policing, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. EddieInCA says:

    Dr. Taylor –

    This story today, which I read initially from Mr. Mataconis via social media, angered me to the point of actually changing my attitude. Before today, I was patiently waiting for the mid-terms to hopefully help the USA change direction.

    Nope. That’s not going to cut it. I’ve opened up the checkbook, and will start donating to a whole lot of political campaigns. Additionally, I’m going into 2008 mode. In 2008, I signed up to be an Obama volunteer. I phonebanked, I drove people to the polls, I distributed flyers – ANYTHING I could do to help.

    So I’d advise anyone who is pissed off, who is disgusted, who is shamed, who is depressed, who is embarrassed by this policy to get off their asses F**KING DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

  2. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    If “we” had possessed any “national” morality–or wisdom or empathy or intelligence or character–Trump would never have been able to win the nomination in the first place. And I’m just about at the same place regarding Hillary–an unforced error at best–but since the most likely trend would have been party change under the circumstances, the GOP can have the blame in my book–and I’d be giving it to them no matter who they had nominated because no matter who it was, the scene would be mostly the same right now.

    On a different note, I have the feeling that Manuel Padilla, Sr. is not having a restful final slumber, but rather saying “I didn’t raise him to be THAT!”

  3. de stijl says:

    Steven Taylor:

    That is a terrible answer, and draws my mind to the writings of Hannah Arendt and the origins of totalitarian government, as she wrote of the mindless bureaucracy of authoritarian functionaries.

    America under Trump is lurching towards outright evil conduct towards the “Other” under protection of a compliant pseudo-legal umbrella. That scares me.

    You are a political scientist.

    How do we prevent this? What strategies have worked in the past?

  4. de stijl says:

    This feels like a crisis and an inflection point in time. Acceding to this is wrong.

    We are in a fight for our souls, now.

  5. de stijl says:

    I may be rightly concerned, but I need to dial it down a notch. Panic never solved anything.

    We are at a crossroads, so we need to choose wisely now.

    This helps me. Joe Henry. Alt-country / folk genius.

    Short Man’s Room:

    Diving Bell:

    Slight confusion because Short Man’s Room is both a song and the album name. You’re not stupid, you’ll figure it out. I’m gonna be bold – you will love Joe Henry if you click. Sault Saint Marie, King’s Highway.

    You’re welcome.

  6. de stijl says:

    If you like the Jayhawks, here’s Joe Henry’s Good Fortune:

    You will not be disappointed.

  7. de stijl says:

    And just who is that backing band?

    That would be the Jayhawks.

    I’m not pimping some rando BS folkie. Joe Henry is hardcore real. It’s four minutes of your life and I guarantee your life will improve during those four minutes. You will want more.

    Clicking on those links will make your life better. What does it hurt to try?

  8. de stijl says:

    Case you forgot, The Jayhawks did this:

    Settled Down Like Rain:

    and this (“Waiting For The Sun“):

    This ain’t no foolin’ around. This ain’t no disco.

    One thing I’ve noticed about our opponents is that they cannot abide or understand random beauty just being bad-ass. Aesthetics have to serve a purpose rather than just being what they are. It hurts to think how narrow that life is.

  9. de stijl says:

    Golden Smog

    Then The Jayhawks and Wilco / Uncle Tupelo decided that a mash-up was the next logical step. So Gary Louris and Jeff Tweedy and Chris Mars and company decided to hook up and see what happened. If you care at all about that era, search Youtube+Golden Smog.

    Supergroups as a rule suck balls; Golden Smog did not suck balls; they kicked balls.

    Here’s V
    (one of the very cool things about his song is that Jeff Tweedy’s sole role is background bass and he gets as much screen time as the drummer)

  10. de stijl says:

    Here’s an obvious Jeff Tweedy song – Until You Came Along.

    Holy crap that’s a good song!

  11. @de stijl:

    You are a political scientist.

    How do we prevent this? What strategies have worked in the past?

    I think that what we need is 1) awareness and 2) to use the existing institutions we have at our disposal to react–such as the coming mid-terms.

  12. Kari Q says:

    If we don’t act, then not only are we not “better than this,” we are on the road to becoming far worse. It does give me some hope to see the negative reactions. Even the Nazis backed off in the face of negative public reaction, if that reaction was widespread and sustained. Private expressions of sympathy are not enough. Everyone who opposes this must take some action to make their opposition public and known.

  13. Kari Q says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    We can’t just wait for midterms, I think. Contact your representatives, especially if they are Republicans but also if they are Democrats. Elected representatives have to worry that this will cost them if they don’t oppose it.

    Make a verbal fuss anywhere and everywhere. Make donations to groups opposing it. Don’t go down this road quietly.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    Elected representatives have to worry that this will cost them if they don’t oppose it.

    That right there shows what a sad and pathetic point we’ve reached–so many politicians don’t do what is right but, rather, what won’t hurt their chances to be reelected…

  15. Kari Q says:

    @An Interested Party:

    It was ever thus. We just like to pretend that there was a time when things were different.

  16. Kathy says:

    Is this policy even legal? I mean, crossing the border illegally si a misdemeanor, not a felony. In any case, many of the families being torn apart are asylum seekers who don’t even cross illegally.

    I suppose it would have been challenged in court if it were illegal, but it strikes me as though it should be.

  17. JohnMcC says:

    “First they came for the immigrants.”

  18. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I want to point out that this is another crisis of Dennison’s own making…one in which the administration cannot decide which lie it wants us to believe.
    The real danger here is that it is abundantly clear that this White House will be completely unable to competently handle a real crisis brought about by outside forces. One could argue that this has already happened, with the Puerto Rican hurricane and thousands dying, after the actual event, while waiting for help.
    We should all be very afraid of that inevitability.

  19. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I already am aware. I already vote.

    @Kari Q:

    Contact your representatives, especially if they are Republicans but also if they are Democrats.

    Does this work? I read somewhere that e-mails were essentially ignored by staffers. Maybe the fer and agin’ ratio got passed up the chain maybe depending on the boss. I don’t want self-affirming action that makes me feel like I’ve done something, I actually want to do something.

    I just e-mailed my Representative. Yay, me! I deserve a participation trophy. Ain’t gonna change shit.

  20. de stijl says:

    I routinely disengage several times a year. I want to know what going on, but I understand that my knowing changes nothing. Disengagement has an upside – less upsetness, less outrage, less rancor, less actively disliking my neighbors. Nothing I say will change anything. My one power is my vote that gets lost in the ocean of people that vote the way I did. But my 85% D city has a R representative, which makes total sense if you’re dense.

    My representative not only does not represent my vote, he actively pursues and perpetuates policies antithetical to my understanding of a civic and civil society. Dude pisses me off on purpose. He represents butt-hurt suburbans appalled at normal city behavior. I just e-mailed that gerrymandered useless fuck like it would make any difference.

    How does one move the ocean?

  21. de stijl says:

    BTW, I wasn’t foolin’ last night. Joe Henry will change your world view in a positive way. As will the Jayhawks and Golden Smog. I am not a hype man, I am a curator.

  22. Franklin says:

    I’m trying to find the devil’s advocate position, and it’s difficult. If you just look at whether the punishment fits the crime, it’s pretty straightforward – taking children from their parents is one horrific punishment for the parents. And just as importantly if not more so, it punishes innocent children.

    Is this what ‘family values’ means to Republicans now?

    Yeah, I think it’s time to write my reps and open the checkbook for the opposition.

  23. Kathy says:

    Perhaps those of you with a GOP Representative can call or email your Congressperson and say how much you’d like to donate to their campaign, but given the GOP policy of tearing families apart at the border, you’ve decided, quite against your desires, to support their Democratic opponent instead.

    Get enough people to do this, and they may grow some cartilage in their backs. I doubt any will grow a backbone.

    And if they try to sell you on the lie that it’s the Democrats’ fault, you’d know what to say in return.

  24. de stijl says:


    My Representative hates me and my community. If my city disappeared, it would a.) make him happy, b.) make his job easier which boils down to getting re-elected.

    He pantomimes concern and does nothing or makes it worse.

  25. de stijl says:

    In the V video Gary Louris is actively sporting a cigarette holder while on piano duty. Is this 1922? Did FDR just tell me what not to fear? That’s crazy and now I kinda want one.

  26. de stijl says:

    I do not feel empowered by contacting my Representative. He won’t listen, in fact he is programmed to not just not listen, but to hate me for bringing the issue up. These folks have weird masculinity issues. Complaining = beta behavior.

    Even if we win the mid terms, we are fucked. Too many of us are infected. I used to think that a thorough electoral spanking will correct the situation. It won’t. Losing or winning is affirmation.

    We are fucked and we must try.

  27. de stijl says:

    @de stijl:

    I’m not religious, so the the concept has always eluded me. But I think I understand “original sin” now. We are so fucked.

  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @de stijl: Not a “country” guy (alt or otherwise), so…meh…
    Sounds sort of like a more hayseeded Dylan though, so I can see the appeal.

  29. @Kari Q:

    Contact your representatives, especially if they are Republicans but also if they are Democrats. Elected representatives have to worry that this will cost them if they don’t oppose it.

    Indeed. Of course, the only way the contact will matter is if it makes them fear their positions–which is hard to do given the lack of competition in the districts.

  30. Kingdaddy says:

    What makes this moment a turning point, for good or bad, is the lie that compounds the cruelty. It strikes at the trunk and roots of our civic culture. The baldly ridiculous claim that the Democrats created a law that required the separation of immigrant children from their parents isn’t a mere shading of the truth. At least, when you cast a particular light upon the facts, there are grounds for debate. Someone can claim that Democrats love raising taxes; someone else can counter, to fund more ambitious government programs, higher taxes might be necessary; we can then argue over whether the cost of the higher taxes outweigh the benefits of the programs, or vice-versa.

    Instead, Trump’s claim is an undeniable lie that damages whatever shared understanding of our core political values and institutions, and shared faith in them, that remain. There is no basis for discussion, because the Democrat-created law does not exist. Everyone knows it is a lie — the person saying it, the person protesting it, and the person remaining silent about it.

    So why lie? Not to convince, which is the purpose of having a dialogue among citizens and representatives in a democratic society, or where the rule of law compels people to make the most persuasive case about the proper interpretation and application of the law. Instead, it is the lie spoken to dominate — to demonstrate that you can say that the moon is really the sun, or that the Great Leader shot a hole-in-one his first time at the tee, and no one can really challenge you on it. Lies are not occasional, when they are expedient; they are a consistent, necessary tool for continually reminding people of who has power, and who does not.

    While I just cited the use of the lie as a tool of domination in a totalitarian autocracy, it’s actually worse in a democracy. You may support the liar, and dismiss the lie as a personal pecadillo, or “just the way politicians talk” (a claim that’s always the last refuge of the politically and morally lazy). If you adopt this position, you have said to the person sitting next to you, in a restaurant, your place of worship, your workplace, the airport, your school, or the family gathering, that the compact among all of us is broken. There is no common interest. There is no shared reality. There are no agreed-upon standards for deciding the relative merits of arguments. You, through the mouth of your clan chieftain, speak. Others listen, and submit to the lies the way they must submit to your decisions, however cruel and unnecessary.

  31. @Kingdaddy: Well said. (And ominously depressing).