Having been the main congressional staff person behind the drafting and passage of a major federal child welfare law in 1980, I would have to say that Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the Jordanian diplomat who serves as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has got it about right. Donald Trump’s policy of wrenching children from their parents and incarcerating (there isn’t really a better or more accurate term) them in caged institutions is about as close to “government sanctioned child abuse.” Al-Hussein is borrowing the terminology from the American Association of Pediatrics. As child psychologist researchers have documented, the developmental impacts of such early trauma can be devastating.
It is difficult to describe how many ways the Trump policy violates federal law, international standards, professional ethics and basic human decency. If Trump or Congress, or both, fail to swiftly bring this Dickensian policy to a close, as many as 30,000 children could be separated from their parents and guardians by the end of the summer, according to one California congressman.
Trump’s blatant and brazen lies about the origins of the policy creating family separation would, in any other administration, be sufficient for people to question the president’s competence, let alone morality. “They could be murderers and thieves and so much else,” Trump warns about undocumented entrants. Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, he ridiculously charges, want “open borders,” oppose tightening entry procedures, and “came out in favor of MS-13,” the murderous gang. Why Pelosi would go into a room with this maniac is almost impossible to imagine.
There is no law mandating that children be separated from their families. That didn’t stop Trump’s prevaricating press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders who fatuously declared last week, “It’s the law, and that’s what the law states.”Sanders is not alone among White House lackeys willing to castigate refugees and asylum seekers. “Parents who entered illegally are by definition criminals,” said Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, who is doubtless anxious to prove her toughness and so avoid another humiliating drubbing by Trump in front of the rest of the Cabinet. “By entering our country illegally, often in dangerous circumstances, illegal immigrants have put their children at risk.” Thanks to Trump’s policies, that observation is indubitable. Indeed, Trump’s entire style of governing (pardon the use of the word), whether with respect to immigration, health care, North Korea or deficit creation, seems to be the purposeful creation of crises he then calls upon others to solve.
Sanders is simply re-enforcing the hysteria of the President who irrationally blames Democrats for refusing to change a policy they had no role whatsoever in creating. Indeed, Democrats passed a 2008 law, signed by George W. Bush, that limits the time certain unaccompanied minors can be held in detention to 72 hours, a restriction flagrantly violated by the Trump detention order. Under federal foster care law, children must be strictly monitored with periodic updates of their placements, which must be in the least restrictive setting available. By contrast, according to McClatchy reporters, “U.S. officials have lost track of nearly 6,000 unaccompanied minor kids.” Emphasis added, as if it needs to be.
Trump and his enablers are using the children as hostages, hoping to force Senate Democrats (they don’t need any in the House) to sign off on a punitive and costly border enforcement policy that includes a multi-billion dollar wall that Trump had promised taxpayers would be fully funded by Mexico. Similarly, Trump needlessly but intentionally created a DACA crisis in hopes of provoking Congress to pass an ill-conceived immigration-border enforcement statute. Actually, as he proved in Tuesday’s meeting with congressional Republicans, Trump doesn’t care what proposal is actually approved; he simply wants a bill passed that he can sign with that outsized, ego-fueled Sharpie signature, and he is willing to rip kids away from their parents, put them in cages, and lock them up to achieve that goal.
Last week, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon took himself down to one of the detention camps and demanded entry. The press-savvy thugs who ran the facility cleverly decided to bar him from inspecting facilities paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Inexplicably, Merkley left, but this week, he and other Democratic legislators wisely returned to the detention camps this week to demand the release of the children. Meanwhile, back in Washington, some Republicans are squirming over the horrifying news coverage and are urging the president to alter his course, less because of concern about the zero-tolerance policy than its impact on their elections and potential control of the House.
Although the scenes of terrified children hugging their parents’ legs and crying uncontrollably, and pictures of the huge cages holding children’s beds, have shocked the world, Democrats should not assume this issue is certain to win them broad voter support. This is precisely the kind of volatile issue that Trump has shown a talent for exploiting by wrapping himself in the flag (he actually hugged one this week) and casting himself as defender of the border. Democrats need to be careful not to be pigeonholed as soft on unauthorized entries, while unqualifiedly voicing their outrage at the Trump policy. Assuming the votes of middle of the road voters will be decided on the child detention policy may well prove illusory.
Let’s be clear: the responsibility here rests with congressional Republicans. All the sympathetic statements emanating from their hypocritical mouths don’t mean a thing if they can’t find the courage to stand up to Trump, end the child separation policy and make DACA a permanent policy. Pretending that these self-created crises can only be resolved by folding them into controversial immigration policy that cannot receive 60 votes is just playing games. The children in the detention centers should be the ones playing games, not spineless legislators.
Back in 1980, when we passed the Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act, we called the policy of losing children in indeterminate foster placements “state sponsored child abuse.” Here we are, four decades later, and the President of the United States smugly touts a policy he fashioned as essential to our national security. Al-Hussein has it right – this is government sanctioned child abuse — but Trump couldn’t care less about children or human rights. Just to make the point perfectly clear, on Tuesday, Trump quit the UN Human Rights Council.
John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published by John’s blog, Domeocracy.