Foreign Policy Blogs

Children at the Border, Part 2: Failure, Chaos, and Deceit

Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has reportedly expressed reservations about the family separation policy. (Photo: Department of Homeland Security)

This is the second of two parts.

The CHIP Model Applied to the Border

To understand the fate of children at the border, it may be necessary to examine what else was happening at the time. Trump’s campaign and presidency have focused on the issue of illegal immigration, in particular on what he sees as a need for a wall running the length of the Mexican border, but despite the unity of rhetoric his party is divided on the issue. Populist Republicans may worry about immigrants suppressing wages or may simply want to stop the flow of foreigners into the country. No doubt there are some who believe the specious arguments that a wall is required for national security (although few Republican national-security experts are among them). But other Republicans worry about the electoral implications of alienating the entire Hispanic population for a generation or more. Small-government Republicans don’t want to spend the money. Pro-business Republicans favor the availability of cheap labor and may foresee the danger of a shrinking working-age population as a constraint on future economic growth and tax revenues, problems that could be easily remedied with increased—not decreased—immigration. (Many of the latter prefer a “guest worker” program, or legalization without citizenship; in other words, temporary cheap labor that will never be in a position to demand higher wagers, climb the socio-economic ladder, or vote for Democrats.) These internal divisions have been significant. After a year and a half of unified Republican government and a host of unilateral executive actions, there has been no progress in Congress on the president’s top priority.

This has prompted Trump on occasion to try to forge a bipartisan compromise. This has involved proposals, for example, that couple money for the wall with renewal of DACA for people already in the country (but with restrictions on future immigration). But once again many Republicans don’t like making concessions to Democrats; concessions that increase the number of Democrats will often decrease the number of Republicans. Also, hard-line Republicans who are often Trump supporters lobby against such deals, which they view as an unprincipled sell-out. Republican leaders in the House, moreover, are generally reluctant to endorse deals that do not have the backing of a majority of their members. (After all, remaining a leader requires the support of a majority of your members.) Thus, the deals tend to fall apart, often revoked by the president who proposed them.

The fate of the latest legislative attempt in the House—involving a hard-line Republican bill and a so-called consensus bill that represents a compromise among some of the House Republican factions—is still unclear. Speaker Paul Ryan, who wanted to avoid a divisive vote on immigration, especially in an election year, allowed a vote on the two GOP bills solely as a way to avoid a vote on any proposal supported by Democrats. (Ryan’s agreement to hold the vote successfully cut off progress toward a “discharge petition” that was being pushed by Democrats and Republican moderates frustrated by the lack of action on immigration and that would have led to votes on four bills, including the two GOP bills. Discharge petitions, through which a majority of House members can force votes against the will of the leadership, are exceedingly rare since majority-party members rarely want to alienate the majority-party leaders.) This strategy, however, did not improve their chance of passage. When the hard-line bill was voted down (193-231) on June 21, the vote on the consensus bill, which also appeared to lack sufficient support, was postponed to the following week. Neither bill was ever expected to pass in the Senate, which had already rejected one similar to the consensus bill.

In the meantime, what did the administration do? It created a new crisis on the border by taking children away from their parents. The president was apparently willing to end it in return for concessions from the minority party—well, not for concessions exactly, since all-Republican bills were the only option, but for votes. While blaming his own policy on the Democrats, Trump suggested such a trade via Twitter: “Democrats can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!” and “The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda. Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration.” Or, as Attorney General Sessions put it, “We do not want to separate parents from their children. You can be sure of that. If we build a wall, we pass some legislation, we close some loopholes, we won’t face these terrible choices.”

Strategy or Chaos?

Was this an actual strategy to create an artificial crisis in order to extract concessions for ending it? As is so often the case with Trump, it is hard to say. Many argue that this presidency is motivated more by spontaneous impulse than by planned intrigue, so perhaps we cannot exclude the possibility that the situation arose by chance—part of the ongoing flow of chaos that is the Trump administration—even if it does fit the CHIP model. Attorney General Sessions certainly appears to like the policy; he was nearly giddy while quoting a Bible verse in its defense. Presidential adviser (and former Sessions senatorial aide) Stephen Miller has always favored this approach as well. It seems unlikely that either of them would gladly give up Zero Tolerance as a bargaining chip. On the other hand, Secretary Nielsen has reportedly resisted the separation of families and at one point nearly resigned. Moreover, once it was initiated and became controversial, substantial groups, including Republican-leaning groups, denounced it, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, a dozen GOP senators, all living former first ladies, and behind the scenes the president’s wife and daughter. These factors favor discarding the policy, especially if Trump can be made to look the hero for resolving the crisis he manufactured and if it can be used to elicit votes from Democrats for a Trump “win.” Regardless of whether the policy was originally put forward as a bargaining chip, it was used that way when its unpopularity became manifest.

Resolution: Chaos and Deceit

The model failed. The House Republicans were—as in the case of Obamacare repeal—hopelessly divided and in some cases more interested in proving their purist bona fides than in actually legislating. Having been burned before, the Democrats were not interested in helping Trump out of his dilemma. Their experience of negotiating with Trump, the self-styled master of the art of the deal, had shown it to be a frustrating and dangerous game. Trump makes little effort to understand the issues under discussion, regardless of the topic; he appears incapable of thinking beyond the short term or of foreseeing the potential consequences of his actions; he cannot be trusted to carry out a commitment when he does make one; and his general behavior is such that Democratic constituents will resent any effort to accommodate him, even if it is justifiable. Instead, some Democrats (and some Republicans) proposed narrow legislation that would order the separation of families to cease, but Democratic leaders simply pointed out that the president created this problem and could stop it at any moment he chose.

Consequently, after days of insisting that he was helpless to act without legislation, Trump signed an executive order on June 20 undoing the policy of family separation but not the Zero Tolerance policy. As with the original Zero Tolerance decision, the new order was issued without guidelines for the people assigned to carry it out, sowing chaos. The Justice Department took it to mean that families were to be detained together. The Department of Homeland Security announced a suspension of referrals for prosecution in the case of adults with children, but it was initially unclear whether this was the department’s interpretation of the new order or the result of a lack of capacity to handle more children. The Defense Department was ordered to provide 20,000 beds on military bases, but it was unclear whether these were intended for children or whole families. A court was asked to revise the Flores settlement so that children could be detained with their parents beyond 20 days, but even the secretary of homeland security acknowledged that this was unlikely. (It is still possible for Congress to change the rules regarding how long children can be detained, even if its recent record of achievement is not encouraging.) Thus, the policy of family separation could be renewed in as little as thee weeks. Finally, the order made no mention of reuniting families that were already separated. The Trump administration appears to be infinitely better at creating chaos than it is at fixing it.

Trump personally responded to the chaos by doubling down on his demonization of illegal immigrants. He already had a history of denouncing members of the murderous MS-13 gang as “animals,” then using that to justify the deportation of illegal immigrants in general. On June 22 he met at the White House with the relatives of people who had been killed by illegal aliens. He has subsequently called for their expulsion without due process. Yet, while criminal elements can be found in any population, immigrants are statistically less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes, and areas with large immigrant populations are less likely to be crime-ridden. (Illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than legal immigrants, but still less likely than native-born Americans.) According to a report commissioned by Trump, they even add more to government revenues than they cost. Moreover, in Fiscal Year 2017, MS-13 members constituted only 0.075 percent of immigrants detained (yes, that is 75 one-thousandths of 1 percent); inclusion of the rival Barrio 18 gang increased the share to 0.095 percent. In any event, ICE neither targets MS-13 members for deportation nor tracks how many it has deported.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that, for all the popular images of ever growing masses swarming across the Rio Grande, the number of people crossing the border each year is less than a third of what it was a decade ago. (The rate has tipped up in 2018 over 2017, but 2017 was the lowest since 1971.) Overall, the illegal-alien population in the United States peaked back in 2000 and then again in 2007, fell a bit after the crash of 2008, and then leveled off. As of 2014, about two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants had lived in the country for ten years or more and only about 14 percent had arrived in the past five years. The unauthorized Mexican population has actually declined as more leave than enter, although the number of Central Americans has increased. Over the long run, the Central Americans may well follow a similar pattern of decline. Thus, not only was the immediate crisis on the border artificially manufactured by the Trump administration, possibly in a failed attempt to get his way in Congress, but the larger issue of illegal immigration is largely based on greatly distorted facts concerning both the rate of entry and the criminality of the entrants. Yet we will be living with the consequences of Trump chaos for some time to come.