An Unsealed Indictment of Trump’s Crimes Against Migrant Families

For a while in 2018, the Donald Trump administration’s “family separation” policy looked like it might become the Stalingrad of his war on immigrants. It was clearly a bridge too far politically, given the global outcry it provoked. Even parts of the Republican party couldn’t stomach it. So Trump retreated strategically on family separation, and intentionally left the program so disorganized that reuniting parents and children became a still-incomplete ordeal
Katy Rodríguez (R) and her son (in his father’s arms) when they were reunited after leaving the Migrant Assistance Centre in San Salvador following their deportation. Like thousands of other families, mother and son were separated for four months after entering the United States without the proper documents. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS
  • by Peter Costantini (seattle, usa)
  • Inter Press Service

At the same time, though, he launched other forms of bureaucratic blitzkrieg to punish and separate families seeking asylum and other legal statuses and move towards an immigrantenrein United States. His final offensive, Title 42, slammed the door on nearly all forms of immigration at the southwest border under the widely rejected pretense that it would prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Over four years later, the casualties of family separation are still being found and healed. According to the July 31 report of the White House’s Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, there are still 941 children, about 17 percent of the total separated, who are not yet reunited or in the reunification process. But media attention has faded over time.

Now Caitlin Dickerson and The Atlantic magazine have done the wounded and the world a service by digging deep and doggedly to flesh out this ugly history, shining light into the back alleys of the Trumpist immigration project and onto the faces of its victims.

“’We need to take away children’ - The secret history of the U.S. government’s family-separation policy” is an exhaustive and meticulous investigation of the systematic jailing of immigrant parents and their separation from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. It comes at an auspicious moment to remind us how much the guts of Trump’s immigration initiatives were infected with lawlessness and gratuitous sadism.

She provides powerful evidence that traumatizing kids and preventing their parents from finding them were precision-targeted, intentional thuggishness, rather than careless bureaucracy. And her research demonstrates that if Trump’s wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party, takes power again, it will double-down on its attacks on immigrants’ lives, which it sees as a winning political strategy.

Trump’s nose-thumbing at the Espionage Act and the various laws trashed at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, along with his reflexive obstruction of justice in many investigations, finally appear to be the target of serious attention from the Department of Justice and others.

However, his assaults on many thousands of immigrant families, while they struck a dissonant chord for even some of his supporters, were soon drowned out politically by other abuses and scandals. Now Dickerson’s full orchestration amplifies the original themes, counterpointing many of the current motifs of 45’s fugue of criminality. And critically, she gives eloquent voice to many of the families torn apart by the policies, along with the psychologists, lawyers, community groups, and a few bureaucrats with a conscience working to reunite and heal them.

This story of family separation broke in the spring of 2018 after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his “Zero Tolerance” policy, which included jailing asylum-seeking parents and taking away over 5,500 of their children, according to Physicians for Human Rights. But as Dickerson documents, pilot efforts to separate families began early in the Trump administration in 2017, although officials claimed that no such policy existed. (Note: I got a glimpse into a tiny corner of that landscape of pain volunteering to accompany a few parents and kids who had been separated.)

Even some Congressional Republicans and groups such as conservative evangelicals panned the policy as excessively cruel. Many organizations for human and immigrant rights insisted that what Sessions was trying to criminalize was in fact protected by U.S. and international law: migrants have the right to ask for asylum at or in between official ports of entry, or anywhere else in the U.S.

In fact, they have to be on U.S. territory to make their request. Zero Tolerance, which supposedly necessitated separating children because it threw their parents in jail for asking for asylum between ports of entry, was an attempt to sweep away the basic premises of asylum by executive fiat.

The last surviving prosecutor of the Nazis at Nuremberg decried family separation as a “crime against humanity”. Physicians for Human Rights issued a report condemning the policy as a form of torture and forced disappearance. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called it “government-sanctioned child abuse”.

A report by the Department of Homeland Security’s own Office of the Inspector General criticized the agencies involved for inadequate recordkeeping and data management that made it difficult to reconnect parents and children.

Dickerson makes clear that the shoddy family tracking system was an intentional effort to render reunification more difficult. John Bash, a U.S. attorney in El Paso, Texas, testified in court that he was horrified by the policy’s effects on children. All that was needed, he reportedly said, was a simple spreadsheet to record the information linking parents and children. But none was created.

From recently disclosed internal emails, Dickerson discovered that plans to reunite parents and children were “faulty to the point of negligence” because “inside DHS, officials were working to prevent reunifications from happening.” Bash testified that he and other government attorneys made efforts to close cases against migrant parents within a few days in order to allow their children to be reunited with them rapidly, before they could disappear into the separate branch of the Department of Health and Human Services that took care of unaccompanied children. He said he was later outraged to learn that these efforts were quashed by Trump operatives within Immigration and Customs and Enforcement and the Border Patrol, who were determined to punish families by keeping them separately detained and incommunicado, long-term or permanently, against all legal and ethical standards.

A 2018 lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ms. L v. ICE, elicited a ruling that the family separation policy was unconstitutional. The court ordered the government to reunite all separated families, and the Trump administration went through the motions of complying. But as ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt later wrote: “The reason so many families have not been located is because the Trump administration withheld their names and then failed to disclose information that could have helped us find them.” Even after the judgement, Trump’s operatives continued to expand the jailing of immigrants and tearing apart of their families through other means.

Through his four years, Trump relentlessly cranked up the volume on the false narrative that an enormous “invasion” of dark-skinned “illegal aliens” had to be deterred by increasingly brutal, sometimes borderline psychotic, measures. The President reportedly proposed that the border wall should be electrified and that a water-filled trench should be dug the length of it and stocked with alligators or poisonous snakes. He also asked his advisors about the feasibility of shooting migrants in the legs to slow them down when they tried to cross the border. His immigration Rasputin, Stephen Miller, later allegedly floated the idea of reinstating family separation with a vicious twist.

Under “Binary Choice”, immigrant parents with children would be forced to choose: allow their children to be taken away from them, or waive humanitarian protections for juveniles so that the whole family could be imprisoned together indefinitely. A revelatory book by New York Times reporters Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear, Border Wars, details many similarly unhinged policy debates in the Trump White House.

When the Biden administration took power with promises to humanize the immigration system, it appointed an interagency task force to finally reunite all of the families. But progress has been slow on the difficult cases remaining, largely because of the Trump administration’s poor record-keeping and obstructionism.

The task force reported that as of July 14, almost a year and a half after its establishment, there are still 1,217 children not known to be reunited with their families {although some of these may have found each other but not informed the government). Of these, 276 are “in process for reunification”. But of the rest, 764 have “contact information available but not reunified” and 177 have “no confirmed contact information available and reunification status unknown”. So a total of 941 are not yet in the reunification process. However, the total still not reunited has been reduced by 510 since September 2021.

Biden appointed Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, to run the task force. “The idea of punishing parents who are trying to save their children’s lives, and punishing children for being brought to safety by their parents by separating them, is fundamentally cruel and un-American,” she told Dickerson in 2018, prior to being appointed. “It really to me is just a horrific ‘Sophie’s Choice’ for a mom.”

Legal efforts to grant permanent legal status to affected families and to make illegal the separation of parents and children for purposes of deterrence are both on hold, ACLU attorney Gelernt told Dickerson. The Biden administration pulled out of negotiations with separated families on payment of restitution for their suffering, according to reporting by Jonathan Blitzer of The New Yorker. Allegedly, the administration withdrew partly out of fear of political damage from mendacious attacks by Republicans claiming that Biden was making immigrants millionaires by negotiating damages. In fact, the government had not yet made an offer, but was trying to settle because it believed that the court would hold it liable.

One positive Biden policy change, allowing unaccompanied children to request asylum when their families still could not, may have led to unintended consequences. As a result, more children were reportedly being sent to the border alone to get them out of perilous Mexican border areas controlled by organized crime. And in reality, many long-running immigration policies, from unjust deportations to long detentions, have also had the effect of tearing apart families.

Overall, Biden’s immigration initiatives have slowly eliminated some of Trump’s worst abuses, but have delayed removing others and in some cases extended them. A few of the most capable immigration advisors, such as Andrea Flores, former director of border management for the National Security Council, have left the Biden administration out of frustration with backsliding and delays on reform, according to a piece by Blitzer. Other high-level administration officials confirmed that “resistance to easing Trump-era restrictions” on immigration came from high up in the White House: “Ron Klain, the chief of staff; Susan Rice, the head of the Domestic Policy Council; and Jake Sullivan, the national-security adviser”. All three are “political people”, but none is an “immigration expert”, Blitzer’s sources told him.

Despite the threats to democracy exposed by the January 6 hearings and other investigations, some in the Administration seem to be underestimating the magnitude of the menace posed by Trump and the MAGA movement to a just immigration system.

The heart of Trumpism is a strain of white sado-nationalism. It is an explicitly racist and xenophobic ideology that proposes ethnic cleansing to ultimately end most immigration, legal or not, and kick out most immigrants, more than four out of five of whom are from Latin America, Asia and Africa.

It is motivated in part by the great replacement theory: in a nutshell, Make America White Again. And it is punctuated by brutality against vulnerable immigrant families and efforts to trample the civil and human rights of all people of color. As historian Mae Ngai of Columbia University told me in an interview, “I think there’s too many brown people in this country for their tastes — that’s what it all comes down to.” And Adam Serwer of The Atlantic nailed its essence: “The cruelty is the point.”

Trump has created “something akin to a fascist social and political movement,” as philosopher Jason Stanley of Yale University put it. And it has become the North American vanguard of a nascent fascist international, led by Trump and Vladimir Putin, and featuring luminaries such as Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Marine Le Pen of France, Matteo Salvini of Italy, and other mainly European leaders.

Fascism needs scapegoats to blame for the mythical fall from greatness, and immigrants are a favorite whipping boy for many of them. Other conservative but not fascist movements have also borrowed or innovated anti-immigrant ideas: for example, Boris Johnson and the British Conservatives’ failed plan to ship rejected asylum seekers to Rwanda, in Central Africa, is a crackpot variant on Trump’s now-defunct Remain in Mexico policy.

If Trump or another MAGA standard-bearer is elected in 2024, they will likely try to resurrect some form of family separation, along with other aggressive policies floated at the end of his term, such as further limits on asylum, an end to birthright citizenship, and more use of active-duty troops at the border. His closest immigration advisors, including Stephen Miller, Stephen K. Bannon and Kris Kobach, continue to publicly advocate for these sorts of scorched-earth measures, and will undoubtedly lobby hard for them in Congress if the GOP wins either house in November.

Regardless of the occupants of the White House or Congress, Trump successfully filled the ranks of Homeland Security and related departments with leadership and rank-and-file staff who shared his ideology. Dickerson fleshes out the rogues gallery with some lesser-known cadre and renders a detailed account of how they took control of the far-flung immigration bureaucracy.

The Washington Post recently editorialized on family separation: “There has been no accounting for the officials who conceived, pushed and carried it out. Nor has the U.S. government offered the traumatized families permanent legal residence in the United States, even as a means of reuniting deported parents with their children. … Congress must ensure future presidents never try this again.”

The Biden administration needs to stop looking over its right shoulder on immigration: negotiation with the MAGAfied GOP on this is futile, but it has managed to alienate many among the immigrant communities and allies essential to the Democratic coalition. It’s way past time to return to the kinds of immigration policies that Biden initially promised, based on global realities on the ground, human rights, and family values.

© Inter Press Service (2022) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service