Are Democrats Causing Family Separation At The Border? Trump's Argument Is Flawed
President Donald Trump has been busy for the last week trying to make his case that certain lawmakers are to blame for the policy that has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents at the border. In statements throughout the week, Trump has repeatedly claimed that Democrats are causing families to be separated upon illegally crossing the border. His administration has joined him in denying the policy, defending it, and passing blame for it onto the Democratic party.
Trump himself has been repeatedly putting the blame for families being separated at the border on Democrats. Trump, speaking with reporters gathered outside the White House Friday, said, "The Democrats forced that law upon our nation." He doubled down over the weekend in a series of tweets blaming them for the results of his own "zero-tolerance" policy on illegal border crossing. "Why don't the Democrats give us the votes to fix the world's worst immigration laws?" tweeted Trump on Monday, June 18.
In fact, the increase of family separation has occurred since a new "zero tolerance" policy was unveiled by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who is a Republican appointed by Trump) on April 6. This new policy says that everyone who crosses the border will be prosecuted — so adults are separated from children so that the adults can be prosecuted for illegally entering the country, while the children are held in custody by the government.
In early May, Sessions clarified, "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law." On June 11, he added that domestic and gang violence did not necessarily qualify as reasons to grant asylum to those fleeing their countries.
Already, some 2,000 children were reportedly separated from their parents as part of the sweeping crackdown in a period of just six weeks after the policy was announced.
So, are Democrats to blame for this current situation, as the president has repeatedly claimed? The answer isn't exactly a short one, but in a nutshell: Nope.
As The New York Times, among others, have pointed out, multiple policies around immigrant detention and illegal border crossing preceded the one Sessions announced in April. Still, none of them require that families be separated, as Sessions and other Trump administration officials have claimed. As Cecilia Muñoz, White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama, told CBS, having a shelter system for immigrant children isn't new. "What's different now is that this administration is choosing to separate children from their parents," she said, per CBS.
As Mark Joseph Stern at Slate indicates, Sessions and Trump have the discretion to implement — or not — the policy and could end it at any time. There is no law enforcing border patrol agents to take children from their parents.
As for Trump's calls on Democrats to work with their Republican counterparts in Congress: That's a tall order, as the battle over Dreamers in recent months has made clear. And importantly, Republicans currently control both houses of Congress and the White House, and they still have yet to pass any substantive legislation that would undo the Trump administration's policy that led to separating families.
Though Trump claims Democrats' inaction on legislation is a cause of the family separation crisis at the border, in fact, Democrats largely have sought to do the opposite, introducing legislation to make the practice illegal except in cases where there is evidence of parents abusing children. But, again, Democrats do not have the majority in Congress that would make it easy to pass that legislation.
Despite his tweets indicating he wants it to end, Trump's own support for legislation to reduce the practice of separating families has wavered. Over the last week, Trump flip-flopped on his support for a compromise bill cobbled together by the GOP leadership that would seek to reduce familial separations and allow a path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children (though as Vox notes, the bill wouldn't necessarily outlaw separating families). The White House said that Trump had misspoken when he signaled in an interview with Fox News Friday that he "wouldn't sign" the moderate GOP bill.
Nevertheless, Trump's finger-pointing has been mimicked by his staff. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also jumped on board, saying at a press briefing Thursday that the policy was the result of "the same legal loopholes that Democrats refuse to close." Earlier that day, Sessions had again defended the policy using biblical references. In the press briefing, Sanders, defending Sessions, argued the same.
Like Sanders and Sessions, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the family separation policy, saying in a series of tweets on Sunday night that the media had misrepresented it. She added that no such policy exists, contradicting a reported confirmation by the DHS that some 2,000 children had already been detained in a period of six weeks since the policy's implementation.
Per NPR, Nielsen, referring to the detained children, added in a statement Monday: "Don't believe the press. They are very well taken care of."
If you are to believe the press, the impacts of the policy are already being felt in very harsh ways. As NBC reported on June 5, officials have been detaining children at such a high rate that these facilities are apparently running short on space. More than half of the 550 children being held at U.S. border deportation facilities had been in custody for longer than the maximum three-day holding period, per CBS. Of those detainees, about half were under the age of 12.
In total, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) assumes responsibility of unaccompanied children upon their referral from the DHS, and has about 11,000 unaccompanied minors in its care, CBS reports. Advocates have stressed their concerns that, while the detained children might be physically out of danger, the emotional and psychological impacts of being separated from their parents can cause permanent damage. And as a report published May 23 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleges, historically, some children in U.S. custody reportedly sustained abuse at the hands of officials.
Many Republicans are coming out against the Trump administration's policies on this issue, including some high profile ones. Former first lady Laura Bush wrote a scathing opinion piece, published Sunday in The Washington Post, condemning the practice and calling on those in power to make changes. Even Melania Trump said that she "hates to see children" get taken from their parents, per her spokesperson, although she posed it as a problem that "both sides of the aisle" need to address, echoing her husband.
It remains to be seen if efforts to pass legislation eliminating the practice of separating families at the border will be successful in the Republican-majority Congress — and, then, if that legislation will get presidential approval. The one thing that is clear, however, is that Democrats are not responsible for a strict policy enacted by Republican, Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions and enforced by the Republican Trump administration.