The controversy over President Donald Trump’s immigrant family separation policy this summer made major headlines for weeks, generated mass protests in Washington, D.C., and in cities around the country, and fomented “occupations” in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, calling for the abolishment of the agency. Heart-rending audio recordings of children who were separated from their parents were played repeatedly on news shows and during protests. The family separation scandal was one of several reasons cited by crowds that showed up to protest Trump in London during a state visit to the U.K. Now, just weeks before a critical midterm election, there’s nary a headline about family separation. And Democrats, who are poised to win a majority in the House, are not hammering nearly hard enough on the issue. In fact, they’re playing defense.
To be fair, the protests and uproar over family separation worked to an extent. The Trump administration was forced to reverse its so-called “zero-tolerance” policy that it used as a justification for wrenching children away from their parents. Then began the arduous process of reuniting those families that had been separated. But to this day, months after the egregious practice was ended, hundreds of children remain separated from their parents. Records show that 244 children are in U.S. custody for a variety of reasons, including ICE’s policy of arresting potential guardians who come forward to claim the children.
In spite of the fact that family separation is no longer routine, disturbing reports have emerged of children who were being held in certified facilities around the country being moved in the middle of the night into a “tent city” in the middle of the Texas desert. The Tornillo facility is not even licensed to hold children. The number of immigrant children in U.S. custody has now swelled to more than 13,000—the largest number ever, and five times greater than at the same time last year. According to The New Yorker, “Shelters have become overcrowded not because more children are fleeing north than in years past but mainly because the Trump Administration has made it more difficult to release them.”
Now the Trump administration is considering a frightening new policy to traumatize immigrants—the obscure sounding “binary choice,” which, according to The Washington Post, means that the government will “detain asylum-seeking families together for up to 20 days, then give parents a choice—stay in family detention with their child for months or years as their immigration case proceeds, or allow children to be taken to a government shelter so other relatives or guardians can seek custody.”
The trauma that immigrants have experienced for years is deeply felt. Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and arguably the most well-known undocumented immigrant in the U.S., told me in an interview, “There is a mental health crisis facing immigrant communities in this country.” Vargas’s new book is called “Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” and is written in three parts, titled, “Lying,” “Passing” and “Hiding.” He told me, “I wanted to understand what the cost of all of this for me has been. … I’ve never felt safe and that was hard to admit to myself.”
Vargas reflected on the current federal government approach to immigration, which in many ways is a continuation of what happened under President Barack Obama, and in other ways is so much worse, saying, “We’ve been trying to figure what the worst-case scenario is. And we’re now living through the worst-case scenario.” He sees Trump as “The manifestation of every nonsensical, ineffective, inhumane immigration policy we’ve had in this country since the ’90s.” He added, “This is definitely the worst time.”
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In spite of the widespread horror among Americans for the family separation policy, Democrats have not fixated on the issue and have instead laid it at Trump’s feet. Trump and the Republicans have wielded the hard-fought confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court as a major victory. But before that victory, they suffered a horrendous moral defeat in their willingness to subject families to wrenching pain and life-long trauma—so much for being a party of “family values.”
In a recent interview with Politico, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi outlined her first order of business as speaker if her party takes the House: campaign finance reform. After that, she said the party’s leadership planned on working toward lowered drug prices, gun control and a bill protecting the so-called Dreamers—a narrowly defined group of young undocumented people who won limited protections against deportation under Obama, but who represent a small percentage of all undocumented immigrants. She made no mention of the family separation scandal at all, and no pushback against the xenophobic scapegoating of immigrants by Republicans ahead of every election.
And yet Republicans have been regularly slamming Democrats on immigration—the very issue that ought to signify the party’s downfall after what transpired this summer! The New York Times obtained a copy of a memo circulated by liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress. It warns Democrats against making immigration a campaign issue. Claiming that Democrats are for “open borders” and “sanctuary cities” everywhere, Republicans are using the Trump playbook to make false or exaggerated claims. And Democrats are folding, just as they have done before.
For example, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who until recently appeared to be in danger of losing his seat to challenger Beto O’Rourke, has attacked his rival on immigration. A slickly produced commercial for Cruz cites a number of undocumented immigrants who apparently committed crimes despite multiple deportations, and juxtaposes this with O’Rourke’s pro-immigrant position. In a border state this plays well, despite the large number of Texas Latino voters, and Cruz has now surged ahead of O’Rourke by several points in the polls. Where are the Democratic commercials playing the audio recordings of children crying for their parents traumatized for what will likely be a lifetime, or the video footage of children marching into a concentration camp-like tent city in Tornillo, Texas? Where are Democratic exhortations for Americans to vote with their hearts against the inhumanity that Trump and the Republicans have unleashed on a vulnerable population?
This summer’s debacle, during which months of negative headlines blasted Trump for his cruelty, should have been the proverbial nail in his party’s coffin. Immigration should have been the weapon with which Democrats bludgeoned Republicans. But because the liberal party is once again unable or unwilling to articulate a critical issue and effectively lay cruel immigration policies at the feet of Trump and the Republicans, the GOP’s anti-immigrant hysteria may reign supreme. The winners will be Trump and his party. The losers, as always, will be immigrants and the rest of us.