The Morning Jolt


Family Separation at the Border Is Set to Dominate the Week’s News

A demonstrator carries a Mexican flag while climbing the border fence between Mexico and the U.S., during a protest against the immigration policies of U.S. President Donald Trump’s government, in Tijuana, Mexico, May 10, 2018. (Jorge Duenes/Reuters)

Your humble correspondent will be filling in for Jim Geraghty this week.

Family Separation

The Trump-administration practice of separating families when they are detained for crossing the border illegally is coming under fire. The administration had been taking heat from the left, but over the weekend, several Republicans broke ranks. Senators Susan Collins and Jeff Flake penned a letter to Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (who is currently getting dragged on Twitter over the controversy) asking her to end the practice. Laura Bush wrote an op-ed for the New York Times calling it “cruel” and “immoral.” Melania Trump’s office issued a rare statement that concluded: “We need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.” The issue is all over the major newspapers and, I’m told, cable news.

Family separation has been happening for a while, but the criticism is approaching a crescendo. This is the story of the week, so it’s important to define our terms. The administration doesn’t exactly have a policy of separating children from their parents once family units are detained for crossing the border. The relevant policy is its zero-tolerance approach to illegal border crossings: Prosecute all adults who are found to be illegally entering (in contrast to the Obama-era policy of “catch and release,” which allowed family units entry into the U.S. interior while their cases were being adjudicated and was a major contributor to the current crisis). Rich Lowry explains:

When a migrant is prosecuted for illegal entry, he or she is taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals. . . . The child is taken into the custody of HHS, who cares for them at temporary shelters.

The criminal proceedings are exceptionally short, assuming there is no aggravating factor such as a prior illegal entity or another crime. The migrants generally plead guilty, and they are then sentenced to time served, typically all in the same day, although practices vary along the border. After this, they are returned to the custody of ICE.

If the adult then wants to go home, in keeping with the expedited order of removal that is issued as a matter of course, it’s relatively simple. The adult should be reunited quickly with his or her child, and the family returned home as a unit. In this scenario, there’s only a very brief separation.

Where it becomes much more of an issue is if the adult files an asylum claim. In that scenario, the adults are almost certainly going to be detained longer than the government is allowed to hold their children. That’s because of something called the Flores Consent Decree from 1997. It says that unaccompanied children can be held only 20 days.

The combination of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, a scarcity of detention facilities, asylum claims by parents facing illegal-entry charges, and the Flores Consent Decree adds up to scores of children being held in converted Wal-Marts.

It’s a ghastly spectacle that is hard to defend. And the Trump administration has not exerted much effort in defending it. On Friday, Trump tried to lay blame at the foot of congressional Democrats, a talking point that has gotten little traction among even his most committed defenders. While some officials have privately defended the policy as a gruesome-but-necessary measure to deter future Central American asylum-seekers from crossing the border illegally, on-the-record defenses of the practice are conspicuously rare. The New York Times reports that the administration is internally divided over the measure. And the well-crafted first-person narratives in the media of young mothers who entered the United States only for their kids to be wrested away will only worsen the PR nightmare. I’d bet something changes sometime soon.

What are the available alternatives? It seems logical that the resources required to build these temporary shelters for children could instead go to building temporary shelters for family units. Then the families would be kept together as the gears of the law slowly turn, and the debate would shift to the zero-tolerance policy itself. The problem of the Flores Consent Decree could be solved by Congress, though as of now the anti-family-separation bills have been too broad to secure a consensus. And over a longer time frame, restrictionists could focus their energy not on cracking down on border crossings but on internal enforcement: a robust E-Verify policy that punishes businesses who hire illegal immigrants and causes many to leave on their own accord. (Maddeningly, the administration has been reported to oppose E-Verify.)

Trump succeeded as a candidate largely because he treated immigration as a contested issue. There are plenty of restrictionists in the United States whose concerns, for years, were ignored by Washington. But building a policy regime of tighter borders that lasts beyond the Trump administration means more than just returning the issue to the political map or taking provocative executive action against illegal border crossers — it means crafting legislation that can get through both houses of Congress and building a coalition for immigration restriction that extends beyond committed Trump supporters. There is plenty of misinformation in the family separation debate, to be sure. And on the margin, the practice indeed might deter some Central American asylum seekers from crossing the border. But over the long term, it will make the cause of immigration restriction ever harder to defend.

China Tariffs

China announced it will impose tariffs on $50 billion worth of U.S. goods in the latest retaliatory round of the ongoing trade war. The ball is now in Trump’s court, and it’s easy to see the president, who had vowed to retaliate if China retaliated, retaliating. The standoff appears to be weighing on global markets and generally increasing risk, and in a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal explained that Trump’s steel tariff is hurting ordinary American businesses, including a locker-manufacturing company that happens to employ 400 factory workers in the Midwest. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell threw cold water on a bill that would have helped reassert congressional authority over the imposition of tariffs. Tariff mania won’t end anytime soon.

Addenda: I went to Heterodox Academy’s inaugural Open Mind Conference last Friday, along with fellow NR colleagues Christian Gonzalez and Madeleine Kearns. It was fascinating. Stay tuned for some more thoughts on a slower news day.

Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open for the second year in a row at Shinnecock Hills. The tournament was notable for being a standard U.S. Open: impossible course conditions, rowdy fans, and complaining Europeans.

Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio and into Los Angeles. I could do without Kawhi’s weak excuses — the Spurs are a model franchise and everyone knows it — but the possibility of him teaming up with another superstar (or two) on the Lakers is a fascinating one.


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