In the build-up to Tuesday’s midterm election, President Trump has used immigration as a key talking point. He’s repeatedly demonized the Central American immigrant caravan, stating in a recent press conference that “[doesn’t] want them in our country” — and he’s even threatened to end birthright citizenship and send 15,000 troops to the Southern border. Through this lens, Last Week Tonight‘s John Oliver analyzed “the most emblematic moment of [Trump’s] presidency so far”: the migrant family separation policy.
The host opened at the policy’s end point, noting, “After a national outcry and court challenges, the president signed an order reversing course, and the story kind of faded from the headlines.” But the damage from family separation has lingered, as he observed throughout the piece.
According to an Office of Inspector General report, the Department of Homeland Security’s data allowing kids to be matched with parents was “incomplete and inconsistent.” Each step in the process was “vulnerable to human error, increasing the risk that a child could become lost in the system.”
“You shouldn’t be able to lose child in a government system as easily as in a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit,” Oliver said. “‘I’m sorry – we’re going to have to call off the search, Mrs. Donaldson. Ralphie’s lost to the balls now.”
The most recent figures suggest the government separated roughly 2,600 children from their parents, and that 220 children are still being held. However, Oliver noted, “we actually can’t say for sure whether either of those numbers are accurate.” Two weeks ago, the government found 14 children and added them to the tally.
“All this incompetence should have been obvious,” the comedian argued. “When non-profits tried to check on the kids, the government often didn’t have a good system to locate those [who] were listed as being present,” he said, also highlighting a New York Times report highlighting a mother who had her “five-month-old breast-feeding baby snatched away from her at our border” and was later given the wrong child.
Oliver argued that the family separation policy was especially cruel given that many of those people were applying for asylum – or seeking legal protection from persecution. Nevertheless, many were repeatedly denied for days and even weeks.
“Crossing the border in ‘the wrong way’ is actually only a misdemeanor on first offense,” Oliver said. “In fact, most people are usually just sentenced to time served, and that’s the thing here. Contrary to what you might think, most of the parents who were separated from their kids were charged, plead guilty and served their sentence all fairly quickly. In the past, we generally didn’t prosecute parents and even let many of them go free awaiting their immigration hearing, which makes sense. So why did we suddenly start keeping people who’d already served their time locked up and away from their kids? Well, because Trump hated the old system. He called it ‘catch and release,’ and he described it in wildly misleading terms.”
According to a study from the American Immigration Council, “96 percent of asylum applicants had attended all their immigration court hearings.” And under an Obama-era program called Family Case Management, 99.3 percent attended their hearings.
“Trump discontinued that Case Management program, despite the fact that even ICE called it an ‘overall success,’ and went with ripping families apart instead,” Oliver added. “So, for the final time, why? If they’d already paid the price for their crime and there are other, better ways to ensure they showed up for court, why the ever-lasting fuck did we really do this? Well, I would argue that this is the logical result of a general hard-right turn toward demonizing immigrants for political advantage in a way that some might call ‘racist’ and others would be wrong about.”
The host broke down conservative immigration arguments into a cyclical pattern: “Crossing the border is a crime; therefore, anyone crossing it is a criminal; and since all criminals are dangerous, anyone crossing the border is a dangerous criminal. Nevermind the fact that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born here.“
Illustrating the horrific toll of family separation on children, Oliver cut to a “fucking heartbreaking” documentary lip that showed Jenri, a six-year-old from Honduras who was separated from his mother and reunited after a month apart. The clip shows the child crying and telling his mother, “I want to go to the jail,” “You don’t love me” and “You’re not my mom anymore.”
“We did that,” Oliver observed. “And not because we had to but because we chose it.”
Trump has recently floated the idea of reinstating the separation policy, and Thomas Homan, former Acting Director of ICE, endorsed that idea on Fox & Friends, saying, “If they would’ve stuck with that for 30-60 days, there wouldn’t be a caravan today.”
“Yeah, maybe, Tom!” Oliver fired back. “And you know what, if we surrounded the border with randomly firing flamethrowers and snakes we trained to stand up whenever anyone approached, that could potentially drive the caravan away too, but we don’t do things like that because that’s not supposed to be who we fucking are.”
“If the president really wants to make Tuesday’s election about him and immigration, then fine. Let’s make it about that. Because family separation is perhaps the most emblematic moment of his presidency so far. It was cruel, sloppy, needless, racist and ultimately exactly what we should have expected, “he continued, referring back to that shot of a traumatized Jenri. “And I would argue the biggest threat to our status as the greatest nation on Earth is not a caravan 1,000 miles south of us – it’s whoever thinks that doing this is an acceptable fucking response.”