Michael Gerson has written a rip-roaring denunciation of the Trump administration’s apparent policy of splitting illegal-immigrant children from their parents as a way of deterring illegal immigration. I think Gerson is right to argue that deterrence can’t justify this inhumane practice. There have to be limits to the deterrents we can use even when deterrence is needed and the action we seek to deter is wrongful. But is Gerson right in describing the administration’s policy? That’s less clear, because the administration isn’t speaking with one voice on this question.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, presents family separation as a regrettable side effect of enforcing the immigration laws in this interview with NPR’s John Burnett.
Our policy has not changed in that if you break the law, we will refer you for prosecution. What that means, however, is if you are single adult, if you are part of a family, if you are pregnant, if you have any other condition, you’re an adult and you break the law, we will refer you. Operationally what that means is we will have to separate your family. That’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime. If you as a parent break into a house, you will be incarcerated by police and thereby separated from your family. We’re doing the same thing at the border. . . .
If you have a family and you commit a crime, the police do not not put you in jail because you have a family. They prosecute you and they incarcerate you. Illegal aliens should not get just different rights because they happen to be illegal aliens.
By contrast, John Kelly, Nielsen’s predecessor in that job and the White House chief of staff, has defended family separation as first and foremost a means of deterring illegal border crossing. Michael Shear and Nicole Perlroth reported in the New York Times a few days ago that President Trump believes that DHS is “resisting his direction that parents be separated from their children when families cross illegally into the United States, several officials said. The president and his aides in the White House had been pushing a family separation policy for weeks as a way of deterring families from trying to cross the border illegally.”
If splitting up families is a side effect of immigration enforcement, as Nielsen suggests, the administration should do its best to minimize that side effect of ramped-up enforcement. If splitting up families is instead the means by which the administration seeks to enforce the law, as Kelly does, it should abandon the policy.