Except that we absolutely should continue to mind, to pay attention, to press President Trump and Congress for resolution on a range of immigration issues that have rotted to the point where the administration believed enough Americans would find it acceptable to wrest children from their parents and sequester them separately in detention camps and facilities.
They didn’t — or at least two-thirds of them didn’t — and raised their voices loud enough that on Wednesday afternoon President Trump did what for days he insisted he could not do: end the “zero tolerance” policy at the border. The policy has resulted in the separation of more than 2,300 children from their families who crossed the border illegally or even those who had legally sought asylum at ports of entry.
Yes, the children are being fed, sheltered and provided minimal care, but it’s inescapable that most are behind chain-link fences, sleeping on mattresses on the floor under emergency blankets and left with no hope of comfort from an explanation of where their parents are or when they will see them again. That most are separated by gender and age means that many have been kept from their own brothers and sisters.
Trump and his officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kristen Nielsen had claimed — sometimes directly contradicting the other — that the recently instituted policy, adopted in April, was federal law that they had no choice but to follow, justified by the Bible, the fault of Democrats or something only Congress could fix.
What it was was another attempt by Trump to leverage a situation to get what he wanted: acquiescence from Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress to his terms on immigration reform, including funding for his border wall and stricter limits and conditions on legal immigration.
Serving as the fulcrum in the Trump administration’s first leverage attempt were the young immigrants protected by the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, those who were brought across the border as children but who have been raised as Americans, are enrolled in or have completed educations and were given permits to work and continue to build their lives here.
Trump revoked DACA last year, giving Congress until March to make the program law. That deadline blew by Congress and federal courts have since ruled against Trump and ordered his administration to reinstate the program, although the case may yet end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
That opportunity lost, the Trump administration grabbed even younger children to use as leverage with Congress.
The result: Congress is indeed discussing legislation, but neither of either two Republican proposals are considered likely to pass the House and have even less chance in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier in the week appeared to prefer directly addressing the separation issue without linking it to other immigration issues.
A fix in Congress regarding the treatment of families arrested at the border is necessary. Trump can order that families arrested at the border be kept together in detention facilities, but a 1997 federal court settlement does limit how long children can be detained. And with more than 43,000 immigrants booked into Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention in 2017, the backlog in immigration courts is causing detentions to last months to a year or longer, as detailed in a report Wednesday by Reuters.
Trump is correct that Congress has allowed immigration issues to go too long without resolution. And Americans shouldn’t allow that inaction to continue any longer.
DACA protections — including a path to citizenship — must be made law. So, too must a solution be found to streamline a moribund work visa process that threatens to allow the nation’s crops to rot in fields and orchards. There’s been no effective leadership to make E-Verify more widely used in the nation, which would help employers verify the identity and eligibility of prospective workers. (Likely because such a system would show Trump’s wall to be an obscenely expensive redundancy.)
But Trump was wrong to believe that separating parents and children would be an an acceptable bargaining chip.
He was wrong to assume most Americans would ignore a child sobbing, “Papa! Papa!”