The American Nightmare

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Friends and family at the funeral of a bus driver who was shot and killed during an encounter with a gang member as he was returning from his daily route, Apopa, El Salvador, September 2016

Donald Trump’s campaign to deter illegal immigration by separating children and parents at the border began with an Easter morning tweet, after Fox & Friends showed a caravan of Central American families traveling through Mexico to escape gang violence at home. “NEED WALL!” he fumed. In the three-day eruption that followed, he blamed congressional Democrats, Barack Obama, and the Mexican government for the influx, while threatening to pull out of NAFTA and cut off aid to Honduras. Though illegal crossings rose this spring, they have generally been decreasing: last year the number of people apprehended at the border fell to a forty-six-year low. Three days after Easter, Trump announced that he was summoning the National Guard.

Soon after, Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled a new plan of “zero tolerance” that vowed criminal prosecution of all migrants caught crossing between border posts, including first-time offenders who had previously been handled in civil proceedings. While Sessions didn’t explicitly endorse the division of families, his actions made child separation official policy, even for many families seeking asylum, since children can’t be housed in criminal detention. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said. Since October, authorities have seized nearly three thousand children, including infants and toddlers, and sent them to foster homes in states as far-flung as New York and Michigan, leaving their frantic, incarcerated parents trying to figure out where they were. Some were deported without their kids. Given the violence the families were fleeing, this amounted, as one advocate put it, to “punishing parents who are trying to save their children’s lives.”

It wasn’t just liberals who cried foul. Thirteen Republican senators labeled the policy an affront “to ordinary human decency.” Laura Bush called it “cruel” and “immoral.” The Chamber of Commerce said, “This is not who we are.” The pro-Trump evangelist Franklin Graham found the effort “disgraceful.” The American Academy of Pediatrics denounced its “sweeping cruelty” and warned that taking children from their parents could inflict lifelong harm.

As the outrage mounted, Trump simply lied—he called family separation a Democratic policy. Sessions quoted the Bible. On Fox, Ann Coulter suggested the wailing children were “child actors,” and Laura Ingraham defended juvenile detention centers as “essentially summer camps.” Ultimately Trump retreated, suspending the policy days before a federal judge ordered the families reunited, and chaos reigned as officials tried to identify and return children, in some cases after having destroyed vital records. A week after the July 10 deadline to return children younger than five years old, only about half of them were back with their parents. The episode—which hundreds of…

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