Understanding Society: A Trump-era atrocity

The family separation debacle during the Trump presidency seemed horrible at the time. Thanks to a superb piece of investigative journalism in the Atlantic, we now know how much worse it was. Caitlin Dickerson’s piece “We Need to Take Away Children” (link) provides previously unknown information about the program and the decisions that led up to it, and the picture is horrific. Consider just a single scene:

But when [Neris Gonzalez] walked into the processing center for the first time after Zero Tolerance was implemented, she saw a sea of children and parents, screaming, reaching for each other, and fighting the Border Patrol agents who were pulling them apart. Children were clinging to whatever part of their parents they could hold on to — arms, shirts, pant legs. “Finally the agent would pull hard and take away the child,” she said. “It was horrible. These weren’t some little animals that they were wrestling over; they were human children. (64)

This is simply barbaric; it is an American atrocity. It is hard not to think of the violence against the innocent in the towns and cities of Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen in 1941 when we read this description. These children were not to be killed, of course; but they were being harmed in a very profound way, with great emotional pain, for very deliberate political purposes. (Gonzalez had a different association: “For her, the scene triggered flashbacks to the war in El Salvador, where thousands of children were disappeared and the sound of their wailing mothers was hard to escape” (64).)

It is hard to read Dickerson’s piece without thinking of other instances of historical evil — genocide, mass imprisonment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government, the 2014 killing of 43 students in Mexico (link). The child-separation plan was not just bad policy — it was state-sanctioned evil. Of course the immigrant toddlers and children were not killed — but they were forcibly removed from their families, in some cases never to return, causing unimaginable suffering for both children and their parents. What a fundamentally inhumane policy this was, lacking utterly in compassion and respect for the human dignity of other human beings. 

This practice began in secrecy; it was wrapped in lies; and it led to permanent harm for infants, children, and parents.

Trump-administration officials insisted for a whole year that family separations weren’t happening. Finally, in the spring of 2018, they announced the implementation of a separation policy with great fanfare — as if one had not already been under way for months. Then they declared that separating families was not the goal of the policy, but an unfortunate result of prosecuting parents who crossed the border illegally with their children. Yet a mountain of evidence shows that this is explicitly false: Separating children was not just a side effect, but the intent. Instead of working to reunify families after parents were prosecuted, officials worked to keep them apart for longer. (39)

There is another dimension of this case that needs emphasis. Donald Trump himself did many “wrong” things while he was president. But this policy emanated largely from senior and mid-level administrators within his government — not the president himself. And this fact underlines something that all of us should be very, very concerned about: when an autocrat takes power, he or she creates a “team” of powerful subordinates who can use the power of their offices to carry out horrible actions. Authoritarianism is not simply a manifestation of “one bad person” in control of government; it is the establishment of a government hierarchy that is broadly aligned with the values and goals of the boss, but empowered to create their own policies and rules to bring about outcomes that they believe will serve their party’s interests. This is another reason why Trump’s stated goal of attacking and dissolving the independence of the Federal civil service is deeply alarming.

Dickerson spells out the broad administrative involvement in the family separation policy by numerous US Federal agencies, and the bureaucratic collaboration that implementation required:

It is easy to pin culpability for family separations on the anti-immigration officials for which the Trump administration is known. But these separations were also endorsed and enabled by dozens of members of the government’s middle and upper management: Cabinet secretaries, commissioners, chiefs, and deputies who, for various reasons, didn’t voice concern even when they should have seen catastrophe looming; who trusted “the system” to stop the worst from happening; who reasoned that it would not be strategic to speak up in an administration where being labeled a RINO or a “squish” — nicknames for those deemed insufficiently conservative — could end their career; who assumed that someone else, in some other department, must be on top of the problem; who were so many layers of abstraction away from the reality of screaming children being pulled out of their parent’s arms that they could hide from the human consequences of what they were doing. (39)

This is the behavior described by historians in the administration of the Final Solution — what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil, and what organizational sociologists and psychologists refer to as compliant organizational behavior. “Hiding from the human consequences” indeed — this is key to the bureaucratic implementation of an evil plan against innocent human beings. Dickerson poses the toughest question directly: “What happens when personal ambition and moral qualm clash in the gray anonymity of a bureaucracy? When rationalizations become denial or outright delusion? When one’s understanding of the line between right and wrong gets overridden by a boss’s screaming insistence?” (39). Stephen Miller and Gene Hamilton were strident advocates of this policy among others, but its implementation depended on the collaboration and compliance of numerous other actors as well. 

Moreover, this policy was not an accident or oversight or side-effect of other policy initiatives. Dickerson makes it clear, through ample documentation, that the goal of the policy was deterrence: to discourage persons from crossing the US southern border illegally with the threat that their children would be taken away — possibly forever.

An important part of Dickerson’s research in this piece is her effort to reconstruct the intellectual, professional, and moral backgrounds of some of the key administrators responsible for the family-separation policy. Especially interesting is her thumbnail account of the transformation of Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during the critical time. Initially opposed to the policy, she eventually succumbed to pressure from the immigration hawks in positions of power around her — including especially Stephen Miller. 

Dickerson has investigated this story throughout the Zero-Tolerance period, and her article documents time after time when administration officials and spokespersons directly and explicitly lied about the existence of a family separation policy. “Waldman and Houlton [DHS spokespersons] provided a statement for my Times story, insisting that families were not being separated for the purpose of prosecution and deterrence. All the while, separations were still increasing. By April 23, three days after the story was published, documents show that De LaCruz had tracked 856 separations, more than a quarter of which involved children younger than 5″ (57).

The article quotes Federal estimates that a minimum of 5,569 children were separated from their families during this period. The harm that these children suffered is incalculable — trauma, fear, long-lasting psychological and emotional consequences for which they will have virtually no help in resolving. And the trauma for the parents was equally deep, including PTSD (74).

The brutality of Zero Tolerance was immediately evident. The father of a 3-year-old “lost his s—,” one Border Patrol agent told The Washington Post. “They had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands.” The man was so upset that he was taken to a local jail; he “yelled and kicked at the windows on the ride,” the agent said. The next morning, the father was found dead in his cell; he’d strangled himself with his own clothing. (62)

And, perhaps worst of all, Dickerson presents evidence showing that “inside DHS, officials were working to prevent reunifications from happening” (65). She quotes from communications from Matt Albence (a deputy administrator at ICE) specifically concerned that prosecutions were happening too rapidly, allowing families to be reunited in just a few days. 

“We can’t have this,” he wrote to colleagues, underscoring in a second note that reunification “obviously undermines the entire effort” behind Zero Tolerance and would make DHS “look completely ridiculous”. (65)

This is diabolical. As of June 2022, it is estimated that about 180 children have still not been reunited with their parents (link). It is surprising that there was little international protest or formal legal objection to this policy, since it seems to be a clear instance of a crime against humanity and an example of atrocious lawlessness.