At a press conference on Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen indignantly rejected the suggestion that her department's practice of forcibly separating illegal border crossers from their children was intended as a deterrent. "I find that offensive," Nielsen said, "because why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?"
Nielsen's mentor and predecessor, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, has explained why, describing family separation as a way of discouraging people from entering the United States without the government's permission. But even if we take Nielsen at her word, the Trump administration cannot escape responsibility for the predictably cruel consequences of its "zero tolerance" immigration policy.
In a March 2017 interview with CNN, Kelly, who was secretary of homeland security at the time, was asked if his department planned to "separate the children from their moms and dads." His response: "Yes, I am considering it in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network." In an NPR interview last month, Kelly called family separation "a tough deterrent."
Kelly's implicit argument is that the suffering of children snatched from their parents by federal agents is outweighed by the harm that might otherwise befall children whose families would have made the dangerous trip to the U.S. but for the threat of legally sanctioned kidnapping. Nielsen claims to find this logic abhorrent, but in practice that does not matter.
Like the president, Nielsen blames Congress for failing to authorize extended detention of children whose parents are accused of illegal entry. Under current law, she says, people prosecuted for that crime must be separated from their children.
But the decision to bring criminal charges in such cases is a matter of discretion, and prior administrations generally declined to do so when it would mean breaking up families. "What has changed is that we no longer exempt entire classes of people who break the law," Nielsen explained. "Everyone is subject to prosecution."
As a result of that policy, the number of children separated from adults at the border has surged, from about 100 a month between October and April to nearly 2,000 in the six weeks from April 19 through May 31. Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks the solution is simple: People driven to the U.S. by violence or poverty should stop bringing their children.
"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you," Sessions said in a speech last month. "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
Where Sessions sees child smugglers, someone with a gram of compassion would see desperate people trying to do what they think is best for their families. Even Kelly understands that much. "They're not bad people," he told NPR. "They're coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason."
But if you are determined to defend "zero tolerance," you can't afford sympathy. "Parents who entered illegally are, by definition, criminals," Nielsen declared.
"They could be murderers and thieves and so much else," added Trump, who launched his presidential campaign by describing Mexican immigrants as rapists, criminals and drug dealers (while allowing that "some" might be "good people"). Anyone could be a murderer or thief, I suppose, but we are talking about people charged with nothing but "improper entry," a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail — or, alternatively, a civil offense punishable by a maximum fine of $250.
The Trump administration is effectively enhancing those penalties by adding the threat that the children of violators will be carted hundreds or thousands of miles away, crying out for their parents and having no idea when (or if) they will be reunited. Even if you don't think that trauma is grossly disproportionate for the parents, their children certainly have done nothing to deserve it.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.