The current political controversy over the Trump Administration policy of separating parents from children at the Mexican border when they are apprehended for illegal attempts to cross into the United States involves many ethical issues, and, as usual, conduct and rhetoric that confounds ethical analysis, perhaps intentionally.
With most complex ethics problems, the starting point is to ask, “What’s going on here?” This is especially useful in this case, where the news media, open-borders advocacy groups, and various political faction are intentionally steering the debate, and public comprehension, into box canyons of pure emotion.
So: What’s going on here?
Despite the fact that its editorial page is cheer-leading the box canyon effort, and its journalists are coloring reports on it with their partisan biases, the New York Times has provided the facts, if you can ignore the static Here is the main one:
“For more than a decade, even as illegal immigration levels fell over all, seasonal spikes in unauthorized border crossings had bedeviled American presidents in both political parties, prompting them to cast about for increasingly aggressive ways to discourage migrants from making the trek…Last month, facing a sharp uptick in illegal border crossings, Mr. Trump ordered a new effort to criminally prosecute anyone who crossed the border unlawfully — with few exceptions for parents traveling with their minor children.”
That’s “all” that has happened. Illegal immigration is...illegal. The Trump Administration has decided to treat breaking immigration laws like the country is supposed to treat all law-breaking—as the crime that it is. The law-breakers are arrested. When law-breakers are arrested for robbery, murder, rape, fraud, embezzlement…anything, really…they are separated from their children. This is not remarkable, nor are the law enforcement officers typically blamed. If a man takes his child to a burglary and he is arrested, then the child is going to be, to use a phrase I am seeing too much lately, “ripped from his arms.” If he is a citizen with a resident family or not a single parent, and the child is also a citizen or in the country legally, the child will be handed into the care of a relative. If not, then that child may also wind up in the custody of a government facility.
The children are being taken from the parents because children are always taken from parents when parents are arrested for a serious crime. What is unusual, and making this situation vulnerable to emotional manipulation on the level of the gun-control debate in which “Think of the children!” instantly lobotomizes a large segment of the public and obliterates all ability to process reality, are several factors:
- Criminals don’t typically take their children with them when they break laws.
- Illegal immigrants can claim to be legitimate “asylum-seekers,” even though most of them are not.
- Progressives, Democrats and those who aren’t paying much attention either refuse to acknowledge or don’t realize that entering the country illegally is a crime.
- The illegal border-crossers are, in many if not all cases, using their children to create exactly this political firestorm. Think of them as the equivalent of human shields.
- Previous Presidents have been willing to be extorted through this emotional black mail–Think of the children!–to neglect enforcement of immigration laws. This is, in great part, how the United States ended up with 11-13 million illegal immigrants.
- It is also how the U.S. ended up with President Trump.
Under President Obama, and presumably Bush as well, children trying to cross the border illegally were also held, just with their parents rather than without them, in a politically motivated exception to usual criminal enforcement practice.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield how the images of children being held do not depict significantly different welfare than what similar children endured during former President Barack Obama’s administration. “I released some of those photos because it was kept very quiet under the Obama administration. There were large numbers of people coming in. The Obama administration was trying to keep this quiet,” Cuellar said. This controversy, like so many others, is being magnified and distorted because of the anti-Trump double standard. For example, in 2000, during the Elian Gonzalez controversy, Time op-ed liberal Thomas Friedman cheered Janet Reno’s decision to give the kidnapped child over to his father, and by extension, Communist Cuba, and wrote,
“Yup, I gotta confess, that now-famous picture of a U.S. marshal in Miami pointing an automatic weapon toward Donato Dalrymple and ordering him in the name of the U.S. government to turn over Elian Gonzalez warmed my heart. They should put that picture up in every visa line in every U.S. consulate around the world, with a caption that reads: ”America is a country where the rule of law rules. This picture illustrates what happens to those who defy the rule of law and how far our government and people will go to preserve it. Come all ye who understand that.”…Hats off to Janet Reno for understanding that the Elian Gonzalez case was about both of these pictures: the well-being of a child and the well-being of our Constitution, on which all good things in our society rest. But hats off twice to Ms. Reno for understanding that these two noble virtues are not equal. The fear of causing some trauma to Elian by rescuing him could never outweigh the need to uphold the rule of law.”
That was the Clinton administration, of course, the Democrats, and the narrative about the Trump administration enforcing the rule of law is that it proves he’s a Nazi. Still, that is what this policy aims to accomplish. Trump aide Stephen Miller is correct on the facts and the law:
“No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement. It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
To be clear, much of the Left does not believe that. They believe that children should be exempt. They believe desperate people should be exempt. Many of them believe that everyone should be exempt. This is why the “1984” device of using misleading language to describe illegal immigrants is the rule rather than the exception. They are “immigrants.” They are “undocumented.” They are “migrants.” Anything to avoid admitting the fact that they are law-breakers.
A few random observations to close:
- When Trump says that this policy is “the Democrats’ fault,” he means 1) that a Democratic Congress passed the laws making illegal immigration a crime, and thus Democrats cannot complain when law enforcement treats it like other crimes. He also means that Democrats have not been willing to cooperate in allowing other measures that would effectively prevent illegal immigrants with children from trying to enter the country illegally.
Both parties share the accountability for this mess. Screaming about the lack of “compassion” is deflection, when compassionate law enforcement has been perverted to mean no law enforcement at all.
- Foreign parents who bring their children into this situation and peril are the ones most responsible for it. They do not magically become innocents and martyrs because they break the law exploiting actual innocents that cause the American public to lose all sense of proportion and priority.
I have heard pleas in court for leniency toward other criminals because their conduct and the resulting punishment is hard on the children. Why should they get special considerations and status for placing their children in peril?
- Whether the Trump policy can be justified or not, the political attacks on it were completely predictable. For that reason alone, the policy may be unwise.
However, the assault on sovereignty and the rule of law by the news media and open borders activists makes enforcing immigration laws at all politically perilous.
- Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, has condemned the policy. He should be ignored. The internationalist perspective is anti-US and pro-open borders, and the U.N.’s human rights record is a disgrace.