The nation should be thankful that President Trump finally came to his senses and ended the inhumane and traumatizing practice of separating children from their immigrant parents who illegally enter the United States. Facing an extraordinary backlash not just from Democrats but from some Republicans, every living former first lady (and, amazingly, the current one), United Nations human rights officials, Willie Nelson, Pope Francis and many, many others who reacted in dismay to scenes of children corralled in metal cages, Trump probably had little choice.
But his solution — detaining entire families together while the adults face, in most cases, misdemeanor charges of illegal entry — raises enormously troubling problems of its own. Innocent children do not belong in jails or detention centers, as a 20-year-old federal consent decree acknowledges.
The congressional Republicans and Christian conservatives who spoke out against separating children from parents — more than 2,300 have been separated — deserve acknowledgment for finally drawing a line, though it is disheartening that it took a policy as cruel and damaging as ripping children from their parents’ arms to finally get them to stand up to the administration.
Of course, the president’s change of heart also put the lie to his assertions, echoed by underlings such as Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, that loopholes in immigration laws and court decisions made the separations necessary. They did not. It was Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy decision to charge all suspected illegal border crossers with crimes and detain them pending court action. Though entering the country without permission is a misdemeanor, no law requires the government to prosecute every violation. And no law or court decision says the government has to detain the border crossers, which is what led to the family separations. The administration chose to do that.
Under Trump’s new policy, the zero-tolerance arrests will continue, but the government apparently will keep the families together in detention — in direct violation of the 1997 Flores consent decree that says the government cannot hold undocumented children in detention centers for more than 20 days, with or without their parents. In fact, during the surge of unaccompanied minors and families fleeing violence in Central America, the Obama administration detained entire families to try to deter others from making the dangerous trip from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where violent gangs have terrorized neighborhoods. The administration ended the policy in the face of political backlash and court orders. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that while the Flores agreement does not require parents to be released, it does bar the government from keeping the children in detention.
In his order, Trump said he intends to ask the court to revise the Flores settlement to allow for longer family detentions. The court should rebuff that. The goal here is to keep the families together — but not by violating a rule that was designed to set rational and compassionate immigration detention standards for children. The better solution is to stop the over-reliance on incarceration. Unless there is a valid belief that the parents pose a threat, they should be released along with their children, with steps taken to ensure they will return for their court dates. Those steps can include electronic monitoring through ankle bracelets and other techniques.
It’s notable that the president, who repeatedly said it would be up to Congress to change laws to end the family separations, ultimately decided for his own political expediency to issue his executive order even as bills barring family separations were being introduced. We’re glad the president didn’t wait for the glacially slow Congress to act, which would have repeated the error he made in ending Obama-era protections for “Dreamers” and then telling Congress to save the program legislatively. Trump can undo that executive decision, too.
But the president is right that Congress should — really, must — address its two-decade impasse over how to fix the nation’s dysfunctional immigration laws and enforcement system. In fact, some efforts to push reform legislation are currently underway, but Congress should be wary of using the crisis of family separations as blackmail to force through the kinds of draconian policies pushed by hard-liners like Trump advisor Stephen Miller, who seek to severely reduce legal immigration. What the U.S. needs is a fair and humane bipartisan immigration overhaul that addresses the complicated but solvable issues that have divided the country for too long.