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Cruel and Usual

The heartlessness of the Trump administration’s immigration policy is matched only by the incompetence in carrying it out.

July 9, 2018

A Trump administration lawyer told a California federal judge Friday in a case involving thousands of migrant children separated from their parents that she could not participate in a status conference over the weekend because she had a dog-sitting commitment in Colorado. She actually said that in this case, the judge actually bought it, and so a Saturday conference was put off until today.

Trust me when I tell you that more than a million Coloradans would have gladly babysat the damn dog if it would have meant a quicker resolution to the Trump administration’s self-generated crisis of “immigration enforcement.” An extra 48 hours is usually the blink of an eye in litigation like this, and it won’t affect the ultimate outcome, but two extra days must have seemed like an eternity to immigrant parents desperately seeking to reunite with their kids and to kids traumatized by the separation.

Which is precisely why the dog-sitting gambit is such a resonant example of how the Trump administration has implemented its new “zero-tolerance” immigration policy (and pretty much every other policy aimed at people of color.) There is the bigotry and ignorance and animus that guides the creation of the policy, there is the cruelty of the policy itself, and then there is the misfeasance or malfeasance in the implementation. We saw this with the Muslim travel ban. We saw it with the voter commission. And we are seeing it now in the most heartbreaking way yet.

Friday’s hearing will forever be known for the dog excuse, and for giving us another vivid lesson about how utterly unprepared the Trump administration has been for the obvious and direct consequences of its actions. What we should remember about the hearing though is what it revealed about how badly immigration agents have botched their latest mission. We now know that immigration officials cannot find the parents of as many as 16 children under the age of 5 who were separated from their families. And if they cannot find those parents they cannot rejoin them with their kids as a court has ordered.

It’s not hard to understand why the Trump administration has failed here, even apart from the legal problems inherent in the government’s position. First there is a flawed bureaucracy and the fact that the two primary federal agencies involved weren’t effectively sharing information with one another quickly enough. Customs and Border Protection officials even actively undermined the identification work done on those migrant families by officials with the Department of Health and Human Services. Worse, we learned last week that federal immigration officials have lost or destroyed—destroyedrecords linking immigrant parents with their children that might have helped them reunify families faster.

Another problem is also a persistent refrain with this administration. Part of the delay in reunifying families is the administration’s stubborn insistence on vetting these children the way they do with “unaccompanied minors” who cross the border alone. There is no reason to undertake this vetting since the children being vetted are “unaccompanied” only because the government ripped them from their parents. The administration’s solution? Use DNA to identify children who belong to parents and vice versa. That is a process that raises all sorts of legal and ethical concerns.

So the feds took these kids away from their parents with little or no planning about how to reunite them. They did so either because they thought they would not get caught or because they didn’t care if they were. Now that they have been caught, and ordered to reunify families, they cannot do so because of a series of avoidable errors in judgment and practice. All this negligence. All this intentional infliction of emotional distress. All the cruelty. All the tears. All of it avoidable. All of it designed to arouse President Trump’s white nationalist base.

Bureaucratic failures and turf wars are the norm with any government endeavor. There always are people who fall through the cracks. But it’s alarming that federal officials lost or destroyed records. And it’s unacceptable that federal officials Friday were unable or unwilling to answer lawmakers’ legitimate questions about what’s happening with immigrant families. Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz described the 35-minute conference call with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as “Orwellian in its overconfidence and vagueness.”

If the White House is going to implement such a policy, if Trump and company are going to defend it on Fox News and use it as a midterm campaign theme, the president and his tribunes should at least have the courage to forthrightly defend it when speaking to members of Congress. They cannot even do that. Meanwhile, babies, toddlers, sit without their parents in immigration detention centers, in deplorable conditions, without proper care, crying, innocent hostages to a policy a majority of Americans strongly oppose.  

(Image: iStock)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.