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The Democratic Precedent

Democrats would like you to think he came up with it on his own, but Trump’s separation of migrant families is a cruel twist on an Obama-era practice.

Guillermo Campos-Ojeda says goodbye to his wife Adela and daughter Paloma before boarding a deportation flight chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) May 25, 2010 in Broadview, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The issue of US border control policies suddenly flared up last week, as things tend to do when it comes out that a government has lost nearly 1,500 children and sent some of them into the arms of human traffickers. As always, this was compounded by Trump’s Clarissa-like need to constantly narrate his life to the audience, with his tweet urging his followers to “put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S” setting off an added firestorm.

Liberal outlets and other anti-Trumpers clamored to point out that: a) it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who control Congress at the moment; b) it isn’t a law; and c) that it was in fact a policy change with a paper trail that was specifically instituted by the Trump administration to deter future migrants. It was, it seemed, another example of Trump baselessly blaming Democrats for unpopular things he himself had done.

The whole episode perfectly illustrates how immigration — or the government’s mistreatment of migrants, to be specific — has of late turned into a game of political hot potato, not helped by the fact that it’s an incredibly confusing issue. The nearly 1,500 missing children were widely conflated with Trump’s family-separation policy, for instance, but those kids were actually minors who crossed the border by themselves.

There’s also the recent ACLU report on abuse of migrant children by border patrol officers that turned out to be exclusively focused on the Obama years, which has been conflated with the report on the missing children. Or this widely shared image of immigrant children sleeping in a cage that was actually taken in 2014.

This confusion is also what’s allowed figures like Jon Favreau, former Obama speechwriter and liberal podcast maven, to defend himself and the administration he served in from criticism on this issue.

“Separating children from parents at the border is a new Trump Administration policy,” he wrote, a day after repeatedly expressing horror at the idea of separating migrant parents from their kids. “It was not policy under Obama. It was not policy under Bush. It was not a policy under Clinton. We have to be clear about these facts.”

Favreau was challenged by one user who cited the ACLU report, which prompted his exasperated reply that he couldn’t see “why it’s so hard to discern the difference between these two issues.” While acknowledging the horror of the abuse of children that happened under Obama’s watch, Favreau explained that he was “interested in stopping an unprecedented policy that’s happening now.”

Favreau’s claim of a lack of precedent for such a policy was backed up by other high-profile liberals. Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu called it “evil” and “un-American,” and claimed it would “shock Jesus,” while Harvard professor Laurence Tribe declared that even when the government rounded up Japanese-Americans, “the US Government didn’t rip families apart.”

So where exactly does the truth lie?

Let’s be clear: Favreau is right that Obama never established a policy that specifically mandated that kids be separated from parents at the US-Mexico border. This a new, Trump-era innovation in cruelty.

But Obama’s defenders overstate the degree to which this is a departure from norms. Here is a brief list of things the Obama administration did do:

  • Arrested tens of thousands of undocumented parents whose kids were US citizens, causing them to lose contact with their children.
  • Disappeared” those parents in the immigration enforcement system, where they were nigh-on impossible to track down, before deporting them to countries they hadn’t lived in for as long as decades.
  • Orphaned thousands of kids who were left without a legal guardian when their parents were shunted to another country.
  • Sent the parents of those kids to places where there was more than a good chance they’d be kidnapped, tortured, sexually assaulted, killed, or sometimes all of the above.
  • Traumatized both the kids left behind and the kids whose parents were undocumented but not yet arrested, which saw those kids develop symptoms of PTSD, stress-based health problems, and night terrors.

In other words, Obama may have never specifically called for migrants to have their kids taken away when crossing the border, but wrenching parents away from their kids — in many cases, permanently — was for many years a regular, known outcome of his policies.

This isn’t even to mention the Alien Transfer and Exit Program (ATEP), began in 2008, but which saw an increase in use under Obama. ATEP was a less extreme precursor to Trump’s current policy, with the same goal: to make crossing the border such an awful, disorienting ordeal that migrants would never try to do so again.

Migrants traveling together would be separated, then shipped off hundreds of miles away to a mystery location, often with no I.D., money, belongings, no way to contact their loved ones or the people they had been traveling with, nor any idea what they would do once they were there. Often, they were sent to places less safe than those they traveled from, making them easy targets for local criminals.

Hundreds of families were separated, typically husbands and wives. Disappearing someone’s husband may not be quite as awful as stealing someone’s children, but you have to wonder when it was decided that one policy was “evil” while the other was acceptable. This was particularly perilous for women, who, after being separated from their traveling companions, were subsequently at much higher risk of sexual assault.

And by the way, even though the use of ATEP was officially limited to men aged between twenty and sixty with no medical conditions, that didn’t mean kids couldn’t be separated from their parents. No More Deaths, an Arizona-based advocacy group, found that of the 869 incidents of family separation they documented between 2008 and 2011, 58 involved minors being separated. The group documented one incident where two minors traveling with four adult family members were separated, and another where a woman’s 18-year-old asthmatic son disappeared in the system. In another case, a man traveling with his 7-year-old daughter and wife was deported to an unknown location and never heard from again.

It’s worth reading just a sample of the accounts of the broken families left by Obama-era policies. The kids put in three different foster homes after their mother was arrested for an alcohol-infused party one of them threw. The son who found out the details of his deported mother’s violent murder after he Googled her name. The undocumented couple barred from returning to their three small children in the US after crossing over to Mexico to see a dying relative. The woman who became a single mother to her two kids when her husband was deported and simply vanished.

Perhaps Favreau and other Obama defenders are content that, unlike Trump’s policies, such separation of families wasn’t happening at the US border. But if the breaking up of families and the separation of children from their parents is unconscionable, surely it’s unconscionable no matter where it happens to take place.

Other People’s Suffering

This is pattern we should all be familiar with by now: Trump takes an already extreme Obama-era policy and makes it worse; liberals who were silent under Obama attack Trump for this policy; Trump strikes back by garbling the truth while making a legitimate but entirely hypocritical point; and liberals cite Trump’s self-serving and factually inaccurate criticism to absolve their side of any sins.

Why does this matter? It’s not, as Favreau suggested to one critic, about “own[ing] a lib.” It’s about the continued refusal by liberals and professional Democrats to reckon with the fact that their favorite president ran the kind of administration they would have been disgusted with had he simply had a different letter in front of his name.

People — mostly immigrant rights groups — spent years shouting into the wind that Obama’s deportation machine was as terrible as it was dangerous. They were roundly ignored, at least until the president needed to win an election. In fact, according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, one of the reasons Trump has failed to deport people at the same clip as Obama is due to the marked increase in local resistance to ICE, resistance that for a variety of reasons was not as forthcoming under a charismatic, tolerant, Democratic president.

Sure, it’s extremely hypocritical. But more importantly, when a Democrat is someday reelected, those defending Obama’s immigration policies today will need to speak out with the same fervor against that president as they do now against Trump. Will they do so? Or will they again decide that there are certain circumstances under which they can live with other people’s suffering?