As a candidate for president, Donald Trump promised “zero tolerance for criminal aliens.” He didn’t give details, but he implied harsh treatment. “They’re going out. They’re going out fast.”
We can now see what he meant. To deter migrants, the United States government under Trump is separating families, taking children from parents in a considered system of deliberate cruelty. And advancing that approach is his attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
A longtime opponent of illegal immigration, Sessions has taken the president’s edicts and attitudes—his clear hostility to Hispanic immigrants of all stripes—and turned them into action, from ending programs that gave legal assistance to immigrants in detention centers to efforts that make immigration courts even more hostile to defendants. If Sessions tolerates Trump’s abuse and opprobrium—if he refuses to resign under pressure from the president—it’s because he remains committed to this agenda above everything else. This—keeping immigrants out of the country even if it means taking their children—is the point.
The attorney general announced this new policy in May during a speech in San Diego. “I have put in place a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you … If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he said.
The word smuggling suggests something illicit. In reality, many of those crossing are seeking asylum with their families. And seizing children looks as monstrous as one might imagine. The New York Times describes the “heartache” of a 5-year-old boy who was separated from his father after they were arrested at the U.S border in El Paso, Texas.
The first few nights, he cried himself to sleep. Then it turned into “just moaning and moaning,” said Janice, his foster mother. He recently slept through the night for the first time, though he still insists on tucking the family pictures under his pillow.
According to the Washington Post, one father was so distraught after Border Patrol agents took his wife and 3-year-old son that he killed himself while in detention. And a recent story from the Boston Globe looks out at a “burgeoning population of dislocated and frightened children, held in makeshift detention centers near the border … or scattered in shelters and foster homes across the country.”
For Sessions, this is the government doing its job. “If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” said Sessions in a recent interview with conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt, defending the policy. “We’ve got to get this message out. You’re not given immunity. You have to, you will be prosecuted if you bring, if you come illegally. And if you bring children, you’ll still be prosecuted.” And while defenders of Sessions (and the president) might point to the word illegally to downplay the cruelty of family separation, the attorney general is a known skeptic of even legal asylum claims. For him, “illegal entry” includes asylum-seekers, despite federal and international laws that give them the legal right to seek help at the country’s borders. Moreover, as Slate’s Jeremy Stahl has written and as the ACLU is currently asserting in federal court, it’s the child-abduction policy itself that is likely illegal.
Those migrants lose their children, with little to no knowledge of when they’ll see them. “A public defender in [McAllen, Texas] says some migrants are told their kids are going to be taken away briefly to bathe, and then it dawns on them hours later they aren’t coming back,” reports Liz Goodwin for the Globe. “Parents have been given a flyer with the wrong number to call the government to find out where their kids are. Last week, the number was corrected on a scrawled, hand-written note.”
Jeff Sessions brought his grandchildren to his confirmation hearing last January. He introduced them and even held one while members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke. In his interview with the attorney general, Hugh Hewitt referenced them, asking, “Can you imagine your grandchildren separated from your children … and the impact on them of that?” Sessions replied: “[T]he United States can’t be a total guarantor that every parent who comes to the country unlawfully with a child is guaranteed that they won’t be, is guaranteed that they will be able to have their hand on that child the entire time. That’s just not the way it works.”
During his speech announcing his “zero tolerance” policy, Sessions framed his actions as reflecting the will of the public. “For decades, the American people have been pleading with our elected representatives for a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest—a system we can be proud of.”
It seems this system—where countless parents face the pain and terror of losing their children with no knowledge of when they’ll return—is what he has in mind.