The Trump administration’s response to the furor over its “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting all undocumented adult border-crossers criminally in order to separate them from their children has had two prongs:
• Signing an executive order which in theory—but maybe not in practice—will end family separations.
• Arguing disingenuously that family separation was not an intended outcome of the “zero-tolerance” policy.
On Friday, the president introduced a more aggressive approach at a White House press conference with parents whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. In his remarks, Trump drew a rhetorical connection between family separation at the border and the separation that occurs when someone is killed:
These are the American citizens permanently separated from their loved ones. The world permanently being the word that you have to think about. Permanently. They’re not separated a day, two days. Permanently. They were killed by illegal aliens. These are the families that the media ignores.
Trump also suggested, contrary to the available evidence, that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate that legal citizens:
I hear that oh, no, this population is safer than the people that live in the country. You’ve heard that, fellows, right? I hear so much. I say is that possible? The answer is not true. You hear like they’re better people than what we have, our citizens. It’s not true.
He later repeated one bereaved father’s unsourced claim that 63,000 Americans have been killed by undocumented immigrants since 9/11, adding that the number “is very low because things aren’t reported.” Sleuthing by the Washington Post’s Philip Bump indicates the 63,000 number comes from a long-debunked claim about immigrant homicide rates by borderline-white nationalist Iowa Rep. Steve King. (Some of the parents at the event had children who were killed not in homicides but in impaired-driving accidents—but by my quick calculations, the 63,000 number would not be accurate even if you combined an accurate estimate of the number of homicides committed by undocumented individuals with an estimate of drunk driving deaths caused by same that assumes that they cause a portion of such deaths commensurate with their portion of the U.S. population.)
A number of bereaved parents spoke at the event, describing their children’s often-brutal deaths in detail; three echoed Trump by mentioning permanent “separation” and suggesting that the separations of undocumented families who’ve crossed into the U.S. are irrelevant by comparison. The implicit and uncomfortable point was clear, and made not just by understandably emotional parents but by Trump himself : You either support indefinite family separation at the border or you support the murder and reckless manslaughter of U.S. citizens by drunk, sadistic illegal aliens. That’s not the case: Statistics indicate that if you reduced the number of undocumented immigrants to zero, crime wouldn’t be lower—and could even be higher. But with his border policy being condemned on all sides, a dishonest appeal to the (real) pain suffered by some American families might be all Trump has left.