The conversation about President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy is expanding. Sure, the majority of that conversation is still devoted to the subject of migrant families being separated at the United States' southern border — with prominent Democrats and Republicans agreeing, at the very least, on the general notion that those separations should end. At the same time, though, while much of the focus is on the Trump administration, people are starting to talk about deportation statistics under President Barack Obama, and with good reason.
That reason is not to compare Obama and Trump, necessarily.
Make no mistake about it. President Trump is unique in how explicitly he dehumanizes immigrants. While his defenders say his toughest language is always reserved for illegal immigrants who commit crimes, the reckless way in which he speaks about such sensitive matters — they're "animals," they're "sending they're worst," etc. — lends itself time after time to being interpreted as a characterization of all immigrants.
And those are just words. The actions are another story altogether, and the latest of those actions is, of course, how the Trump administration has moved on the subject of family seperation.
In 2018, when just about every political subject seems to be polarizing, there has been as much as a consensus on family seperation as you'll find for any important subject. That general consensus is that family seperation at the border is a new low for the American government.
But it's worth pointing out how that new low is talked about. Consider a statement made by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, about how the administration is wrong when it says its hand is forced to separate families (which Trump claimed a lot).
"The other options are all messy (given that some overly prescriptive judges have limited their administrative options), but there are ways to address this that are less bad than the policy of family separation they’ve chosen," Sasse wrote.
That is the reason that people are bringing up immigration policies under President Obama. It's because of the idea that there's a line between really bad and "less bad."
Any serious conservation about immigration, and what the country's policies on the subject should be both now and going forward, should first and foremost be honest in admitting that the line exists.
Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, who called family seperation "the wickedest thing the Trump administration has done so far," made acknowledged the line in a recent column.
"Some harshness, some deterrence, really is unavoidable in any immigration system that doesn’t simply dissolve borders," Douthat wrote. "So policymakers are therefore obliged to choose tolerable cruelties over the intolerable one that we’re witnessing in action right now. This dilemma was apparent (or should have been) in the Obama years when a far more pro-immigration administration pursued sweeping amnesties, eventually by executive fiat."
It might be easy to say that the family seperation at the border crosses the line by a mile, sure. But without clearly defining the line, or even attempting to (or, even, acknowledging the existence of the line), it's harder to make a call on other actions that the government takes to enforce immigration laws.
Later in his column Douthat notes that roundups by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were notable under the Obama administration, during which deportations from inside the United States peaked at over 200,000 per year, twice as many as 2017.
Overall, over 2.5 million people were deported during Obama's tenure, more than any other president, according to ABC News.
Another column, written in The Washington Post by historian Carly Goodman, notes that the while Trump has intensified the enforcement of immigration laws, the influence of ICE is "the product of our country’s narrowing view, formed under both Democratic and Republican administrations, of immigration as primarily a national security issue."
The Atlantic's David Frum, a noted Trump critic, brought up the fact that the Obama era made its own actions to deter illegal immigration. "Mandatory detention and swifter deportation were integral to the Obama administration's post-2014 strategy for deterring Central American family immigration ... It worked too," Frum tweeted.
Did any of those actions under Obama cross the line? Were they really bad, or just less bad?
There's really no way to answer that question without revisiting deportation and immigration policies under previous presidents, including Obama. That's why it was inevitable that conversation about family separation during the Trump administration would expand to include a discussion about his predecessor's practices.