At Thursday’s debate, moderator Kristen Welker asked President Donald Trump about his since discontinued and unlawful policy of separating children from their parents at the border without any plan to return them as a “deterrent” for undocumented immigration.
As Welker noted, this week the ACLU reported that it has been unable to find the parents of 545 children who were separated under a “pilot program” for the policy that ultimately resulted in at least 4,000 separations. It was one of the few times Trump has been directly confronted about the worst human rights abuse of his four years in office.
At first, Trump blamed smugglers for bringing children over the border, not admitting that these children had come with their parents and been taken from them on orders from his administration. When the president finally acknowledged the reality, though, he gave us a window into what he actually thinks about family separation: In his view, it wasn’t that bad.
“They are so well taken care of,” Trump said of the children, some as young as 4 months old, whom his Customs and Border Protection agents ripped from their mothers and fathers before deporting the parents. “They’re in facilities that were so clean.”
This actually matches quite closely with the official line of administration authorities who carried out the separations. During a July 2018 hearing, for instance, former Immigration and Customs Enforcement official Matthew Albence called the detention centers “more like a summer camp.”
“These individuals have access to 24/7 food and water,” Albence said at the time. “They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured.” During that same hearing, another Trump administration official who was put in charge of reuniting separated families, Commander Jonathan White, acknowledged the truth: that separations cause lifelong “traumatic psychological injury to the child” and that the administration was warned against doing it for that reason.
To Trump’s point about the stolen children being “so well taken care of,” though, his administration has also argued in court that it need not provide detained children with a “toothbrush,” “towels,” “dry clothing,” “soap,” or “sleep.” This was while his Border Patrol was denying children those things and also while it was refusing donations of those things to give to the detained children.
But still, Trump thinks that the children who may never see their parents again “are so well taken care of.” He did not mention the at least six children who have died in CBP custody in less than a year.
Here is the full debate exchange, in which Trump initially refuses to answer the question by attacking Biden for the Obama administration’s detention policies, which notably did not include family separation or denying children soap and toothbrushes.
And here’s the text of the exchange:
Welker: We’re going to talk about immigration now, gentlemen, and we’re going to talk about families within this context. Your administration separated children from their parents at the border. At least 4,000 kids. You’ve since reversed your zero tolerance policy, but the United States can’t locate the parents of more than 500 children. So how will these families ever be reunited?
Trump: The children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels, and they’re brought here and they used to use them to get into our country. We now have as strong a border as we’ve ever had. We’re over 400 miles of brand-new wall. You see the numbers. We let people in, but they have to come in legally. And they come in through—
Welker: But how will you reunite these kids with their family, Mr. President?
Trump: And let me just tell you. They built cages. They used to say I built the cages. And then they had a picture in a certain newspaper and it was a picture of these horrible cages and they said look at these cages, President Trump built them. Then it was determined they were built in 2014. That was him. They built cages.
Welker: Do you have a plan to reunite the kids?
Trump: Yes, we’re working on it very—we’re trying very hard. But a lot of these kids come out without the parents. They come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs.
Welker: Vice President Biden, let me bring you into this conversation. Quick response and then another question to you.
Biden: These 500-plus kids came with parents. They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with. Real “tough, we’re really strong.” And guess what? They cannot—it’s not—coyotes didn’t bring them over. Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents. And it makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.
Welker: Let me ask you a follow-up question.
Trump: Kristen, they did it. We changed the policy.
Welker: Your response to that.
Trump: They did it. We changed the policy. Who built the cages, Joe? Who built the cages, Joe?
Biden: Let’s talk about what we’re talking about. What happened? Parents were—their kids were ripped from their arms and separated. And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.
Welker: Let me ask you about—
Trump: Kristen, I will say this—
Welker: Ten seconds.
Trump: They went down, brought reporters and everything. They are so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that were so clean. Have gotten such good—
Welker: But some of them haven’t been reunited.
Trump: But just answer one question. Who built the cages? I’d love you to ask him that. Who built the cages?
After further discussion of Obama’s harsh deportation policies—which, again, did not include family separation—Biden brought things back to the matter at hand.
“You have 525 kids not knowing in God’s name where they’re going to be and lost their parents,” he said.
After an evening in which Trump repeatedly interrupted Welker and Biden to try to get the last word in nearly every exchange, this was one subject he was eager to move on from. “Go ahead,” he said as Welker attempted to change topics.