Despite Trump’s Order, Separation Anxiety Continues


In the wake of an executive order that defused the self-inflicted immigration crisis, an initial impulse could be to say that all’s well that ends well. Unfortunately, all is far from well, the issue is far from ended and the negative impulses that created the crisis remain strong, perhaps stronger than the positive ones that helped fix it.

From the first volley fired in the move to separate more than 2,000 children from their desperate parents, President Donald Trump adopted the swaggering, get-tough persona that got him elected in the first place. Just like the simplistic but flawed concept of a Muslim ban, it’s far easier to declare zero tolerance than to devise a humane, nuanced policy toward strangers fleeing to a new land. 

The president’s followers, in and out of Washington, were quick to rush to his defense. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions extracted a Bible quote that purported to show that Trump’s separation policy is ordained from above, and press secretary Sarah Sanders agreed. Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of  Homeland Security who reportedly had been dressed down by Trump in private, rushed to prove she had the president’s back, blaming Congress for the problem.

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Euphemisms and untruths multiplied in efforts to come up with rationales for the wrongheaded policy. Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham said the quarters where the children were warehoused were “essentially summer camps.” Ann Coulter claimed that the weeping children whose pictures horrified so many were really “child actors.”

Harsh and inaccurate rhetoric has been used by both sides in this controversy. Trump should cease calling immigrants of any kind animals or rapists, and those who oppose him should stop falsely claiming that the detention centers are like Auschwitz. Such rhetoric only makes a bad situation worse.

But the news reports and TV footage showing distraught children seized from their desperate parents proved much more powerful than the statements parroted by the president’s supporters. 

Former first ladies came out strongly against the separations, with Laura Bush calling the practice cruel and immoral. Even Melania Trump said in a statement that she “hates to see children separated from their families.” 

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican who is no one’s idea of a liberal, put it best:

“It’s not American.”

After the swift and strong public backlash, politicians proved once again that too often, their strongest impulse is not to do the right thing but to get re-elected. Pressure from their constituents brought a quick about face. Then, suddenly, Trump and his underlings were mouthing a different tune, in the best tradition of Orwellian doublespeak.

“We’re going to have strong, very strong borders,” the president said last week — on World Refugee Day, no less —  when he signed an executive order he had once said would not be able to reverse the policy. “But we’re going to keep the families together. I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.”

Sessions fell in line, saying the next day:

“It hasn’t been good, and the American people don’t like the idea that we are separating families. We never really intended to do that.” 

As for urging Congress to fix the problem, a House bill was delayed after it became clear it didn’t have the votes to pass. And the sharply divided Senate was unlikely to go along with whatever the House passed, so Trump, returning to his mantra that this is all the Democrats’ fault, finally threw in the towel, undercutting legislative prospects.

“Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,” he tweeted Friday morning.

So what happens now? The president continues to demonize Democrats, claiming in his weekly address that “the Democrats don’t want border security, the Democrats are okay with crime — but we’re not okay with it.” 

And now he is pushing to end due-process rights for immigrants. 

But even if no one is totally blameless in allowing the sad spectacle of separated families to get as far as it did, playing politics and continuing such red-meat rhetoric won’t help. 

The president’s executive order may stop future separations, but the chaos in its wake shows that little planning and thinking went into the policy flip-flops. And it’s far from clear when and how the children who have already been taken from their parents will be reunited with them.

One way to help make America great again could be by helping to strengthen conditions in the native countries of would-be immigrants so they are not so desperate to leave in the first place. 

In this country, legislation will likely have to wait until after the November elections. Ideally, members of the new Congress will reject the administration’s erratic, “act first, worry about the consequences later” approach to immigration and other issues. 

Maybe the White House will take the hint and institute policies that have solid thinking and bipartisan support behind them. 

There has to be a better way to proceed than the embarrassment that unfolded this month.