Nearly 2,000 migrant children have been ripped from their parents at the border under President Trump’s new “zero-tolerance” policy – state-sponsored trauma intended to deter undocumented immigration and even asylum seekers. New photos of separated migrant children in border patrol custody show them in oversize kennels, sleeping on mats on a bare concrete floor with only foil blankets for comfort. Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who has spearheaded opposition to family separation, wrote to Speaker Paul Ryan in unvarnished language Saturday: “The Trump child-snatching policy is evil.”
Democrats have a bill to outlaw the Trump policy. The Keep Families Together Act – introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein – would stop the government from taking children from their parents in the border zone, except in cases of suspected trafficking. “Many of these families are fleeing terrible violence, traveling thousands of miles on foot for the chance to file an asylum claim and save their lives,” said the centrist California Democrat. “To traumatize them further is unconscionable.”
Heading into the weekend, the bill had more than Democratic 40 cosponsors – but also a surprising list of party holdouts, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Doug Jones of Alabama, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
On Friday, Rolling Stone reached out to this cohort for an explanation. A pair – Heitkamp and Jones – responded that the Feinstein bill wasn’t up to snuff. A spokesperson for Heitkamp said that the Senator was deeply opposed to child separation but believed Feinstein’s legislation was “a rushed bill that needs a lot of work.” Jones called family separation “completely contrary to our core American values,” but told Rolling Stone: “What is needed more are workable solutions that can address the problem long-term.” Jones called for senate hearings.
But as constituent pressure – and horrific new details of the internment conditions of separated children – mounted over the weekend, Democrats found religion. Heitkamp reversed course, tweeting Sunday: “I’m cosponsoring the Keep Families Together Act … The administration can & must change this cruel and harmful policy. But we can’t wait for that to happen & need to pass this bill to take action.” Jones’ camp updated the Senator’s statement: “I plan to sign onto that legislation this week,” he said.
By Sunday night, every Democratic senator had signed on to the Feinstein bill, save one: Manchin. The West Virginia senator has hugged tightly to the Trump administration on immigration: Alone among Democrats, he voted to confirm Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who eagerly defends child separation, citing the Bible. Manchin recently cut a campaign ad in support of Trump’s border wall. But on Monday, Manchin too joined the fold, writing: “No law requires pulling children from the arms of their parents. That why today I am signing onto the Keep Families Together Act,” calling it “the only legislative vehicle we have to fix this problem.”
Trump and his surrogates have repeatedly blamed Democrats for the cruelty of its zero-tolerance policy. “It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder [sic] Security and Crime,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws!” The GOP was once the party of personal responsibility; under Trump it is becoming the party of “look what you made me do.”
The reality is that nothing requires the Trump administration to jail all border-crossing adults – the policy that triggers family separation. In fact, asylum seekers, under international law, are not supposed to be charged with a crime at all. The change in enforcement was the brainchild of Trump’s anti-immigrant adviser Stephen Miller, who told the New York Times, “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy.” The president and his administration appear to see child separation as a bargaining chip; they’re literally holding migrant children hostage, seeking to get Democrats to sign on to draconian immigration legislation and border wall funding.
For now, the Trump cruelty continues. Creating what Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic senate candidate from Texas tweeted is a “Catch-22,” the administration is blocking asylum seekers from presenting at legal ports of entry; those who cross the border and seek asylum from the other side, are treated as criminals and stripped of their children.
Once in custody, separated families find themselves in a Kafkaesque nightmare – parents are held by the Department of Homeland Security; children are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. There is no formal system in place to track families to ensure reunification after parents are released or deported. “Once the parent and child are apart, they are on separate legal tracks,” John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE told the New York Times. “There is a very high risk that parents and children will be permanently separated.”