Separating families, as a Trump administration policy now requires when migrants try to sneak into the United States, is certainly cruel. Forgotten in the ruckus dominating immigration debates since last month’s policy announcement is the Obama administration’s embrace of an equally troubling alternative: locking up migrant children alongside their mothers. Losing sight of common threads between family separation and family detention runs the risk of missing an opportunity to reimagine immigration policies.
In early May, Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that federal officials would take children from their parents if they were caught entering the United States without the government’s permission. Justice Department lawyers are now filing criminal charges against parents who enter the United States without the federal government’s permission. Separating children from parents facing criminal prosecution, Trump’s chief of staff John F. Kelly added, would deter people who are thinking of coming. An April memo to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said this would be the “most effective” way of keeping people from coming to the border.
Democrats pounced on the Trump administration’s new policy. They were right to do so. In the continuing quest to police immigration law, the administration romanticizes the power of the criminal justice system and offers nothing more than lip service to the people caught up in the push of poverty and violence in Latin America and the pull of a better future in the United States. The causes of migration are complicated and the trek northward possible only for the courageous, but these complexities are lost in the Trump administration’s simplified demonization of migrants.
Where Democrats are wrong is to imply that the Trump administration’s policy of separating families opens a new chapter in the annals of migrant scapegoating. President Obama and his top officials did so too by wholeheartedly embracing a policy of detaining families that is essentially the other side of the coin from family separation. Six months into his presidency, Obama shut down a 500-bed facility in Texas that housed entire families. But when young migrants and families began arriving in the United States in increasing numbers in the summer of 2014, the Obama administration quickly reversed itself. Family detention became a cornerstone of Obama’s second term. Mothers were detained with children, sometimes no more than a few months old, while fathers were separated from their loved ones. In out-of-the-way Artesia, New Mexico, DHS built a temporary facility to detain migrant families. Soon it contracted with a private prison corporation to build a permanent 2,400-bed site an hour south of San Antonio. The Obama administration never looked back.
There are remarkable similarities between what happened then and what is happening now. Obama officials claimed family detention was necessary to deter migrants just like Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly rationalizes family separation. Homeland security chief Jeh Johnson told the Senate in 2014 that detaining mothers and children was part of the Obama administration’s “aggressive deterrence strategy” regarding unauthorized border crossings. A senior DHS official told lawyers representing the government in immigration court that “Implementing a ‘no bond’ or ‘high bond’ policy would help…deter further mass migration” by keeping migrants locked up. And in the press release announcing the opening of the family prison south of San Antonio that critics call “baby jail,” ICE claimed confining families behind fences would “deter others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States.”
Under Trump, the government’s policy has shifted, but in its rationalization and cruelty, the federal government’s approach toward migrants hasn’t budged. Detaining families together hurt children, upended families, and pushed immigration law to its limits. Separating families does too.
There is more than hypocrisy at stake. We are dealing with the lives of parents and children so political posturing should bend to the moral failure that is an immigration policy that sways between family detention and family separation. Ending the cruelty of family separation can only come if we end the cruelty of family detention. Neither is possible without ending the moral smugness of designating some people as good and others as bad. Instead of arguing about which immigration nightmare is worse—Obama’s or Trump’s—it is time to recognize that, for migrants, nightmares come in Republican red and Democratic blue. Then we can move on to courageously imagining an alternative in which migrants are not described as threats to be policed on the border and watched in prisons, whether alongside their children or not.
Challenging the federal government’s heavy-handed policing of migrants is certainly daunting, but far less so than moving a family to parts unknown. If migrants can do that with their lives and their children, surely politicians and advocates can do that with their debates and their laws.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in The Guardian on June 17, 2018, under the headline Cruel and Immoral: America Must Close The Doors of Its Immigration Prisons.