Family Separations: Should we be horrified, relieved, or just confused?

It’s not clear what Trump’s executive order means, or what will happen in 20 days.

The national outrage against the Trump administration’s family-separation policy kept ramping up until Wednesday, when Trump seemed to back down. But the executive order he signed is confusing, and what exactly it means is still being hashed out.

The fundamental contradiction. The heart of the problem is that the order mandates two outcomes that look contradictory:

  • It apparently endorses the zero-tolerance policy of criminally charging everyone caught crossing the border somewhere other than an official entry point. “This Administration will initiate proceedings to enforce this and other criminal provisions of the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] until and unless Congress directs otherwise.”
  • But it also seems to end the family-separation policy that zero-tolerance has led to: “It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources. It is unfortunate that Congress’s failure to act and court orders have put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law.”


  • We’re going to continue enforcing the law.
  • Enforcing the law required us to separate families.
  • But we’re going to stop separating families.

Imagine that you’re a Customs and Border Patrol officer trying to obey this order: What do you do?

Flores. The most obvious answer is to imprison the children along with the parents. However, once you get past 20 days that is illegal under what is called the Flores settlement, a series of consent decrees the government has signed going back to the Clinton administration. Vox explains:

The Flores settlement requires the federal government to do two things: to place children with a close relative or family friend “without unnecessary delay,” rather than keeping them in custody; and to keep immigrant children who are in custody in the “least restrictive conditions” possible.

No judge is going to believe that jail or a government internment camp is the least restrictive condition possible.

The administration can’t just back out of Flores on its own; a court has to let them out of it. The executive order instructs the attorney general to ask the court to modify Flores “in a manner that would permit the Secretary, under present resource constraints, to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.”

But there’s really no reason why a court should do that — and the judge in charge seems particularly unlikely to — because the original reasoning of Flores still applies: The kids have done nothing wrong and don’t deserve punishment. The threat that the government otherwise will mistreat them in an even worse way (by separating them from their parents) is simple extortion, as I think the judge will clearly see.

Congress. Congress could supersede Flores by writing a new law explicitly describing how the children of parents charged with illegal entry should be handled. But with the Republican majority deeply divided on how harshly to treat immigrants, and the leadership unwilling to turn its back on its anti-immigrant radicals (and on Trump) to craft a compromise bill that could get Democratic votes, that’s very unlikely to happen, especially in the next 20 days.

Thursday, a far-right immigration bill failed to pass the House by a wide margin, 193-231. That vote was supposed to be followed by a vote on a less draconian “compromise” bill. (The compromise was between moderate and conservative Republicans. No Democrats were consulted.) But that vote was postponed until next week, because supporters couldn’t round up enough votes. In a tweet Friday, Trump reversed course on his demands for a new law, and instead urged Congress to “stop wasting their time on Immigration” until after the November election.

What does he think should happen to the families between now and November? It’s a tweet; there’s no space to spell that out. At any rate, it’s quite likely that neither the courts nor Congress will resolve the executive order’s contradictory instructions. What then?

Confusion within the administration. Thursday, CBP and the Justice Department made contradictory statements. A CBP official said:

We’re suspending prosecutions of adults who are members of family units until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can accelerate resource capability to allow us to maintain custody.

But a DoJ spokesperson (coincidentally named Flores) said:

There has been no change to the Department’s zero tolerance policy to prosecute adults who cross our border illegally instead of claiming asylum at any port of entry at the border.

So it looks like the return to the previous procedures is temporary: Zero-tolerance prosecutions will resume as soon as CBP can find space to house the families, which will number in the thousands. Immigrant detention camps — there’s a debate about whether to call them “concentration camps”are being assembled on military bases. This also was envisioned in Trump’s executive order:

Heads of executive departments and agencies shall, to the extent consistent with law, make available to the Secretary, for the housing and care of alien families pending court proceedings for improper entry, any facilities that are appropriate for such purposes.

These camps will set up a conflict with the courts: Flores allows holding children in such settings for 20 days. Trump wants to hold them “throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings”, which could be years. (The current average wait time at the most overloaded immigration court, in Houston, is 1751 days, or more than four years.)

Changing the process. That time could be reduced under a proposal by Ted Cruz to hire more judges, open more courts, and make decisions in 14 days. (That raises its own problems: A family that runs for its life and arrives on our border with nothing can’t put its asylum case together in 14 days.) Another option is to abandon due process altogether, as Trump proposed Sunday, tweeting:

We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.

I’ll repeat a point I used to make when the Bush administration was threatening habeas corpus: Any time people can be imprisoned, deported, or otherwise harmed without a hearing, there’s a hole in the legal system that all kinds abuses can slip through. Suppose you, an ordinary American citizen, get swept up in an ICE raid by mistake. If there’s no hearing, who will you explain the mistake to? Or suppose it’s not a mistake, and somebody in ICE just doesn’t like you? You may find yourself on a street corner in Juarez, telling your story about how unfair this is to anybody who will listen.

If all this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. There actually is no emergency that requires this kind of response. There is a problem of rising backlogs in immigration courts. Cruz’ additional judges would help with this, but there’s nothing wrong with a case taking, say, months to assemble and decide, rather than 14 days.

In the meantime, there are far less cruel (not to mention less expensive) ways to handle the families than to lock them up, either together or separately. Sonia Nazaro explained in Friday’s NYT:

The family case management program, a pilot started in January 2016, allowed families seeking asylum to be released together and monitored by caseworkers while their immigration court cases proceeded. Case managers provided asylum seekers with referrals for education, legal services and housing. They also helped sort out confusing orders about when to show up for immigration court and ICE check-ins. And they emphasized the importance of showing up to all court hearings, which can stretch over two or three years.

The pilot was implemented with around 700 families in five metropolitan areas, including New York and Los Angeles, and it was a huge success. About 99 percent of immigrants showed up for their hearings.

It also did something Republicans love: It cut government spending. The program cost $36 per day per family, compared with the more than $900 a day it costs to lock up an immigrant parent with two children, said Katharina Obser, a policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The pilot, scheduled to last five years, was abruptly canceled by the Trump administration almost exactly a year ago.

Other alternatives to prison have also excelled. ICE has two programs that use electronic ankle monitors, biometric voice-recognition software, unannounced home visits, telephone reporting and global positioning technologies to track people who have been released from detention while their cases are being heard, at a cost of 30 cents to $8.04 per person per day. In 2013, 96 percent of those enrolled appeared for their final court hearings, and 80 percent of those who did not qualify for asylum complied with their removal orders.

The Trump administration isn’t being driven to harshness and cruelty, it is seeking out ways to be harsh and cruel. As Jeff Sessions and several other administration officials have admitted, the point is deterrence. Families that are being terrorized by gangs in Guatemala or Honduras need to understand that if they come here, we’ll terrorize them too.

Dehumanization. The main thing that has gone wrong for the administration these last two weeks is that the American people have been seeing asylum-seeking families as human beings. The recording of crying children at a toddler jail was effective because it brought home the point that these are just children, like your kids or anybody else’s. (This was precisely the point Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade needed to deny: “Like it or not, these aren’t our kids.“)

Trump has responded to this outpouring of human sympathy by doubling down on his dehumanizing rhetoric and his effort to raise fear of an imaginary immigrant crime wave. In Trump’s version of reality, families aren’t coming here to escape danger or seek a better life, they “invade our Country“. They “pour into and infest” America. They don’t establish families like human beings, they “breed” like rats. He responded to the sympathy Americans have shown for migrant families by hosting a meeting of people who have had relatives killed by undocumented immigrants. Unlike the families Trump has separated by government policy, these families are “permanently separated” — implying that the latter injustice somehow justifies the former. [1]

Sarah Jones writes in The New Republic:

Trump did not invent this language from whole cloth. Modern history is full of examples of political regimes that has described certain populations as subhuman—often to justify treating them as such. In the most extreme cases, that rhetoric preceded mass killing.

Trump’s dehumanization of Hispanic immigrants doesn’t have to go that far, but we don’t actually know where it’s going, and this kind of thing never goes anywhere good. Once you start thinking of people as less than human, and you gather thousands of them together in camps, how do you argue against any form of cruelty someone wants to inflict on them? (Miniver Cheevy makes the case that the Nazis (or at least not all of them) didn’t set out with the intention of genocide. But their short-term solutions to “the Jewish problem” left them with camps that were expensive to run and filled with subhuman vermin. When the Final Solution of annihilation was proposed, the logic seemed inescapable.)

Reunification. Even if the prosecutions and separations are suspended, what happens to the kids the government has already taken? CBP claimed on Friday that the 500 or so kids it hadn’t yet turned over to other agencies would be reunited with their parents by Sunday. But that leaves another 2,300 or so. (Homeland Security claims 2,053.) Often the parents have no idea where their children are, and it’s not entirely clear that the government knows either. (DHS claims it does.) A public defender described the situation in The Washington Post:

In a typical meeting, the defendants in a federal criminal case ask the same questions: How much time am I looking at? What do these charges mean? Is my judge fair? Should I go to trial or plead guilty? But things are different in El Paso now. In the wake of the Trump administration’s policy to purposely separate parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border, my clients now ask: Where is my little girl? Who’s taking care of her? … I have to explain to these parents that I might never be able to answer their questions.

… At another hearing before a different judge, as one of my colleagues asked the agent on the stand about the whereabouts of our client’s child, the prosecutor objected to the relevance of the questions. The judge turned on the prosecutor, demanding to know why this wasn’t relevant. At one point, he slammed his hand on the desk, sending a pen flying. This type of emotional display is unheard of in federal court. I can’t understand this, the judge said. If someone at the jail takes your wallet, they give you a receipt. They take your kids, and you get nothing? Not even a slip of paper?

But that’s only a problem if you picture these families as human. If “they’re not our kids”, if they represent an invasion or an infestation that’s going to come here and breed, then everything is going fine. Carry on.

[1] For what it’s worth, I’ve discussed this fallacy before: You can play the same trick on any large group of people. For example, take Americans whose first names begin with D, a group that includes both myself and Donald Trump, plus millions of other people. Undoubtedly, some of those millions are criminals or even murderers. You could host a meeting of their victims, who do indeed deserve sympathy. But would that really make a case for throwing Trump and me out of the country?

Even if you ignore the collective-guilt problem — what does a murder committed by David or Denise have to do with me? — you’d need more than just anecdotes to make any kind of case at all. Are D-named people statistically more likely to commit violent crimes? Immigrants — illegal or otherwise — aren’t.

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