Coming Together On The Family Separation Crisis

REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Kelly Sloan Political and Public Affairs Consultant
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Even for a topic as prone to emotion and partisan entrenchment as immigration, the last few weeks have been exceptional in polemic intensity.

The child-separation debacle at the border introduces a dilemma which resides at the heart of the immigration issue; most Americans are, quite properly, dismayed and unsettled by the images and concept of young children being forcibly removed from their parents and detained separately for extended periods.

At the same time, however, most concurrently recognize the acute problem of illegal immigration and expect that laws ought to be enforced. In the meantime, any meaningful discussion or analyses has been drowned out by cacophonic outbursts erupting from all sides.

It is remarkable that virtually no one in this drama — with the exception perhaps of the Border Patrol and ICE officers doing their jobs — emerges untarnished: not the president; not his vociferous critics, who tendentiously distort the issue beyond recognition while offering no competent solutions; not Congress, on whose shoulders the responsibility for appropriate legislative correction falls; not die-hard supporters of Mr. Trump, who obstinately refuse to acknowledge the moral problem; and certainly not the parents, who knowingly placed their children in this deplorable situation by intentionally breaking the law and stealing into the country illegally with their little ones in tow.

As far as President Trump’s culpability, it is fair to point out that, in certain respects, he was trying to do the right thing. His job as chief executive, after all, is to execute the laws of the nation, enacted by the legislative branch. This is elementary constitutional stuff.

But Mr. Trump, or someone on his staff, was surely aware of both the Flores consent decree, which forbids the federal government from holding children more than 20 days and is the principal source of the current miseries, and the lack of adequate capacity to hold families intact in any case.

The correct course of action would have been to ensure that a) the law was adjusted accordingly to permit families to remain together throughout the process, and b) that he had facilities in place to hold them before implementing the zero-tolerance policy at the border. Having done neither, not only did Trump find himself having to react to public backlash with a corrective executive order, but now the Border Patrol cannot even implement the policy due to a lack of holding space.

This was a self-inflicted political wound, not to mention human tragedy, which the president could have avoided with nothing more than a little preparation and planning.

But many of the president’s most vocal critics are themselves tainted in this matter for having committed more than a little hyperbolic excess. Certainly, the images are heart-wrenching, and the photographs make for some iconic moments. The crying little girl featured on the cover of TIME magazine, for instance, juxtaposed with the president who, it is suggested, put her in that pitiful condition, has the makings of this year’s equivalent of the 1968 photo of a South Vietnamese police chief about to execute a Viet Cong guerilla.

But like the ’68 snapshot, the TIME cover is grossly misleading – it turns out the poor little girl in question was, in fact, never actually separated from her mother. Oops.

Other rhetorical embellishments are worse. As saddening and tragic as the images of familial separation are, they are in no way remotely comparable to the horrors of the Holocaust, a connection which some have irresponsibly tried to make.

One recoils at having to point out that American border detention facilities are not extermination or “re-education” camps — that no one is starved, tortured, put to slave labor or killed. As troubling as the separations are, the government’s activity at the border is, in fact, testament to the very existence due process and rule of law, however sloppily applied; just as the Nazi death machinery and the Soviet Gulag were testimony to the absence of both.

To make the concentration camp analogy serves only to debase legitimate criticism of the manner in which border policy was implemented, not to mention the injustice it does to the memory of the millions who suffered and died in the man-made hells of the Nazi regime.        

More thoughtful critique of the policy and its immediate effects ought to focus at least as much on role Congress has in addressing this whole mess as the administration’s failures. It is striking that a concept as simple as the executive branch executing laws has become so alien in our political culture that the occurrence of its happening has led to a crisis of this proportion.

Proposals are on the table, but none appear to have much of a chance of success, especially since congressional Democrats seem increasingly unwilling to embrace any immigration reform measure that in any way recognizes that the United States has a border.

Forging a reasonable path forward requires acknowledging two realities: a) that illegal immigration is a genuine problem for America; and b) that enforcement of our laws and compassion for our fellow man are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Sentimentalization of the issue and political tribalism have clouded useful analysis; but the answer, surely, lies somewhere between pulling children away from their parents and comparing reasonable control of our frontiers to genocide. 

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also a policy fellow at Centennial Institute.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.