U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

Since President Donald Trump took office, the news on the immigration beat has been a horrifying parade of human-rights violations and needless cruelty. Families torn apart, migrants kept in prison camps, asylum-seekers turned away, vulnerable people deported to face the violent circumstances they came to this country to escape.

How did it get so awful? Let’s give a nod to President George W. Bush, who created the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) as part of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11. President Barack Obama, in turn, might have reformed or reined in ICE, but instead he stepped up deportations. But primary responsibility for the current disaster lies with President Donald Trump, whose Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy that calls for criminal prosecution of every person who enters the country without permission, and separates parents from children on those grounds.

Trump’s administration seems surprised to find itself taking heat for the decision to treat migrants this way. Why, they wonder, are the people taking children from their parents the bad guys here? Can’t we blame the government’s campaign of violence and fear on the immigrants who are its targets? After all, as Sessions put it, “if you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Trump is lying. There is no law, certainly not a law passed or supported by Democrats, that requires the Justice Department to separate families or treat asylum-seekers like criminals.

Demonizing the vulnerable and exaggerating the threat posed by immigrants in particular are hallmarks of Trump’s politics. Sessions, a longtime anti-immigration hardliner in the U.S. Senate, has been more than happy to join the fear campaign. “We are not going to let this country be invaded,” he said when announcing his zero-tolerance policy. “We will not be stampeded.” But even conservatives who respond favorably to talk of strong borders and beautiful walls may wonder whether tearing nursing infants from their mothers’ arms is part of Homeland Security’s mandate. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, while insisting he is still “for the border fence,” pressed Sessions to consider taking steps to keep families intact while prosecuting parents. Sessions replied coolly, “If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them.”

Yes, why not just leave the kids at home and—what is the expression—let them eat cake?

This strategy of ignoring the actual reasons people flee to the United States, talking about them as if they were at best reckless adventure-seekers and at worst malingering thugs, is standard anti-immigrant demagoguery. Sessions knows desperate parents don’t have the option of leaving kids safely behind with the nanny. But casual disregard for their plight can be effective, so long as the public doesn’t think too hard about the migrants themselves—out of the country, out of mind. It’s much harder to sustain when coupled with a homeland policy so cruel that Americans are forced to acknowledge its human cost.

Trump, meanwhile, is trying to play the good cop. “We have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law. It’s a horrible thing,” he said at a White House meeting on immigration issues. He tried the same line on Twitter: “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents.”

Trump is lying. There is no law, certainly not a law passed or supported by Democrats, that requires the Justice Department to separate families or treat asylum-seekers like criminals. That policy is a choice made by the Trump administration, like the choice to describe deportees as “animals.” But Trump keeps repeating the lie—“The Democrats gave us the laws. I want the laws to be beautiful,” he told reporters on June 15—when he might be crowing about having followed through on his anti-immigration campaign rhetoric.

Trump’s response to the backlash is at odds with his Justice Department’s, but they have in common a basic acknowledgment that separating kids from parents is something you shouldn’t admit to doing by choice. Perhaps that choice will backfire on the politicians who hope to benefit from it. The suffering on display could prompt voters to ask themselves in earnest why a parent would make such a journey with a child. They may look at immigrants anew and not think, “Go back where you came from,” but “There but for the grace of God go I.” And then they may begin to clamor for realistic and humane border policies. It’s a long shot, sure. But wouldn’t it be something if we could ultimately blame Donald Trump for that?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the July 6, 2018 issue: View Contents
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