Just after noon Eastern Time today, on World Refugee Day, the president of the United States got small in his hole and backed down on his vicious policy of separating children from their families at the US/Mexico border. Appearing before a restive gaggle of reporters, Donald Trump announced he would be “signing something” later in the afternoon to effectively end the separation practice. A few hours later, the executive order ending family separations was signed.
The executive order, it is important to note, does not end the “zero-tolerance” policy that created this debacle in the first place. Migrants trying to cross the border illegally will still be arrested but will not have their children taken away. More ominously, the order’s method for keeping families together involves ending the ban on imprisoning children for no more than 20 days, which means the children will be subject to indefinite detention along with their parents.
“The order,” according to The New York Times, “would keep families together, though it is unclear how Mr. Trump intends to claim the legal authority to violate what have been legal constraints on the proper treatment of children in government custody, which prevented former President Barack Obama from detaining families together during a similar flood of illegal immigration two years ago.”
In doing this, Trump is attempting a mighty straddle: He is trying to defuse what has become a caustic political crisis by ending family separations, but at the same time is trying to retain the veneer of toughness adored by his supporters by keeping the zero-tolerance policy still fully in place. All of these migrants are still getting locked up, including the children, indefinitely. The only difference is they will be together when the cage doors close. It is the living definition of “cold comfort.”
As for the thousands of children who have already been separated from their parents, no immediate solution has been presented. The Trump administration has no plan for them. “No protocols have been put in place for keeping track of parents and children concurrently,” writes Jonathan Blitzer for The New Yorker, “for keeping parents and children in contact with each other while they are separated, or for eventually reuniting them. Immigration lawyers, public defenders, and advocates along the border have been trying to fill the void.”
Any actual solution to the overall crisis will have to come from Congress, which makes the achievement of a solution a very unsure thing. There are a number of immigration bills rattling around the Republican side of the House at present — some addressing the fate of the DREAMers and Trump’s border wall, some not — but the GOP is bitterly divided, even splintered, over the immigration issue in general. The last thing the Republicans wanted was an immigration brawl on the doorstep of the midterm elections, but that is exactly what this Republican president has given them.
Like as not, they would have been able to put together narrowly focused legislation meant to stop family separations had this executive order not come along, and they may still have to if Trump’s order runs afoul of existing law. Any larger legislation will come at a painful price for the Republicans, politically speaking, but they may no longer be able to dodge the issue as they have been for so long now.
Trump’s bewildering decision to pick this fight caused an eruption of raw emotion across the country and the world, with an intensity rarely seen in modern politics. Images and audio of frantic toddlers being taken from their mothers brought together religious leaders of every stripe, along with ordinary people all across the political spectrum, who were horrified at what was being done in their name. Prominent Republicans in the media are leaving the party and very publicly endorsing Democrats.
The number of people who support the practice, according to multiple polls, stood around 25 percent, which is a meager three points higher than George W. Bush’s exact approval rating on his last day in office. That is some pretty grim company to be keeping, and there is no telling how damaging the fallout from all this will be in the days and weeks to come. That anger, interestingly enough, may be harshest from those who supported this policy, and who now think the president spit the bit just when everything was, to their thinking, going so well.
Conversely, a lot of people who supported Trump were forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror as this calamity unspooled, and a great many of them did not like what they saw. Whether they take those bad feelings out on Trump, or take refuge in the inevitable spin to come, remains to be seen. Politically speaking, this was one of the largest, most ridiculous unforced errors in the history of the country. Despite all preposterous claims to the contrary, Donald Trump did this to himself.
It must also be noted that, in point of fact, no executive order was needed to put an end to this disgraceful policy. Trump only needed to call his attorney general and say, “Enough.” Instead, in his usual boorish style, he attempted with this order to control what has become a ruinous narrative and seem the hero in all this. Few beyond the confines of his cheering squad at Fox News appear to be buying it, however. It is all just too gruesome.
One thing is certain: Trump is in retreat. Migrants at the southern border still have no idea what tomorrow will bring, but their children will be with them when it comes.