President Trump created the child-separation crisis when he imposed a “zero tolerance” policy for border crossings. Where the Obama administration detained families ahead of civil proceedings conducted in immigration court, the Trump administration decided to pursue criminal prosecution of immigrants and asylum-seekers, arresting parents and separating them from their children, with the explicit notion that the trauma could serve as a deterrent to others who might seek asylum.
Now, Trump wants credit for ending the crisis he created, calling an executive order he signed on Wednesday “very compassionate.” But the order neither ends the crisis nor produces a more humane status quo. It’s a public relations stunt, meant to dampen criticism without changing the fundamentals of the policy. “Zero tolerance” is still in effect, and Trump’s manufactured crisis may well get worse.
The executive order, titled “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation,” does three things. It continues the zero tolerance policy of prosecution for illegal entry, but directs the Department of Homeland Security to keep families together in custody, instead of separating parents and placing them with the Department of Justice. Families will remain in DHS custody for the duration of their criminal and immigration cases, which may mean months of waiting in detention facilities.
As it stands, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is running out of space for the adults it already has in custody. To accommodate new detainees, the president has allowed other departments, including the military, to provide additional space. Thousands of children will move into facilities without the staff or equipment to handle them or their needs.
Trump’s executive order also directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to challenge a 1997 ruling that prohibits long-term immigration detention for children, either alone or with their parents. This gets to the name of the executive order, which isn’t just rhetorical flair. Under the terms of the Flores settlement, the federal government can hold children for a maximum of 20 days. Given the likely length of immigration proceedings, there’s a strong chance that Trump’s order will compel a violation of the settlement. Only Congress can fully resolve the problem, and it seems highly unlikely to come to any kind of immigration agreement.
You don’t have to look too closely to see the outline of a clear—and cynical—political gambit. President Trump signs an executive order ending child separation, but to carry it out, officials violate a federal court order. That requires a judge to step in and admonish the administration, after which Trump pulls back, resuming family separation with the help of an easy scapegoat.
Either way, the situation for migrant parents and children looks bleak. Yes, they’ll be kept together, but in conditions that weren’t designed for mass detention of families. And the haphazard nature of the policy only raises the real possibility of abuse and neglect, seen already in the facilities used for child detention. There’s a reason critics have called these concentration camps; in both form and function—isolated tent cities and steel-wire enclosures that hold people targeted for their racial and cultural identities—they resemble the reconcentración zones of Spain’s Cuban occupation or the internment camps reserved for Japanese Americans during the Second World War.
With this executive order, the policy of separating families appears to cease. But child internment will continue, with families together as prisoners in federal custody. Young children will still be locked in “tender age” camps; asylum-seekers will still be criminalized as dangers and threats to national integrity. And there’s still the matter of those children already separated from their parents. According to former Immigration and Customs Enforcement head John Sandweg, there’s a real chance of permanent separation. “You could easily end up in a situation where the gap between a parent’s deportation and a child’s deportation is years,” said Sandweg to NBC News.
Of the thousands of children taken and detained by the Trump administration, some may never see their parents again. However this ends, irreparable damage has already been done.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus