Originally published by Politics
In the weeks since the Trump administration instituted a zero tolerance policy that seeks to criminally prosecute anyone who crosses the border unlawfully and effectively causes children to be separated from their families, criticism has poured in from advocacy groups, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and a host of political luminaries who are no longer in office.
Now, in the span of about 24 hours, all four living former first ladies have added their voices to the chorus of public critique, calling the practice “immoral,” “disgraceful” and a “humanitarian crisis.”
Even the current first lady, Melania Trump, took the somewhat unusual step of issuing a statement that appeared to align somewhat with her predecessors, while also avoiding assigning partisan blame.
“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” her office said in a statement on Sunday. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
The rare public show of unity among several former first ladies drew a response Monday afternoon from Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, who acknowledged that “calling attention to this matter is important” and said the situation at the border is “a very serious issue” that Congress needs to fix, according to a transcript of her remarks.
Asked about the criticisms, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said a prior administration was to blame.
“Frankly, this law was actually signed into effect in 2008,” she said.
Though the administration officials have called on lawmakers to close loopholes, no law actually requires that families be separated at the border. President Trump ordered the stiffer effort last month — and it is the zero tolerance policy that results in unlawful immigrants being taken into federal criminal custody, at which point their children are considered unaccompanied alien minors and taken away.
Here’s a look at what each former first lady has said — and how each of their husbands dealt with immigration during their time in office.
In a statement released by the Carter Center on Monday, Rosalynn Carter condemned the Trump administration’s approach.
“The practice and policy today of removing children from their parents’ care at our border with Mexico is disgraceful and a shame to our country,” Mrs. Carter said.
In 1980, her husband, Jimmy Carter, initially offered so-called open arms to tens of thousands of Cuban refugees — many fleeing communism. He later abandoned the offer in favor of program designed to reduce the influx of refugees and exclude those who had been imprisoned in Cuba for serious nonpolitical crimes.
Separately, Mr. Carter increased the number of Southeast Asian boat refugees who were allowed to resettle here after the Vietnam War.
At first, Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic nominee for president, offered only a very brief comment on the Trump administration policy.
“YES!” she wrote, signaling her agreement with a tweet by her husband, Bill Clinton, who said on Twitter on Father’s Day that children who had been separated from their parents “should not be a negotiating tool.”
Then, in a series of tweets on Monday, Mrs. Clinton offered additional thoughts, calling situation at the border “a humanitarian crisis.”
“Every parent who has ever held a child in their arms, every human being with a sense of compassion and decency, should be outraged,” she wrote.
“We should be a better country than one that tears families apart, turns a blind eye to women fleeing domestic violence, and treats frightened children as a means to a political end,” Mrs. Clinton added.
During her husband’s administration, an anti-immigrant backlash arose in response to the number of Mexicans streaming across the border.
Mr. Clinton was at first caught flat-footed to the new political dynamics and had a “mixed record” on the issue, but by the end of his presidency had helped pass some pro-immigrant legislation, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant advocacy organization.
In an opinion article published on Sunday by The Washington Post, the former first lady Laura Bush nodded to her Texas roots in urging politicians in Washington to “do better to fix this.”
“I live in a border state,” she wrote. “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
She added, “It is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.”
However, it was her husband, George W. Bush, who initiated the “zero tolerance” approach for illegal immigration on which Mr. Trump’s policy is modeled — a point Ms. Sanders alluded to on Monday.
In 2005, Mr. Bush began Operation Streamline, a program along a stretch of the border in Texas that referred all unlawful entrants for criminal prosecution, imprisoning them and expediting assembly-line-style trials geared toward rapid deportations. The initiative yielded results and was soon expanded to more border sectors.
Back then, however, exceptions were generally made for adults who were traveling with young children, as well as juveniles and people who were ill.
In general, Mr. Bush “had a moderate approach to immigration,” said Mary Fan, a former federal prosecutor in California who is now a law professor at the University of Washington.
Ms. Fan, who was a prosecutor during the Bush years, said the former president let law enforcement working at the border use discretion in deciding which immigrants were worth prosecuting.
On Tuesday, Michelle Obama, who succeeded Mrs. Bush as first lady, retweeted her predecessor’s opinion article and said simply, “Sometimes truth transcends party.”
But her husband’s administration was also heavily criticized for how officials responded to its own immigration crisis. Indeed, Barack Obama earned the nickname “deporter in chief” for expelling more people than any other president in history.
During Mr. Obama’s second term, Central American migrants, including many unaccompanied children, began surging across the border. Obama administration officials recently told The New York Times that they considered the possibility of separating parents from their children, but said they quickly decided against it.
Instead, they decided to vastly expand the detention of immigrant families and open up new facilities along the border, in which children and their parents could be held together. In the meantime, officials began publicly warning parents that their children would be deported if they entered the United States illegally.
Eventually, images emerged of young children — many dirty and some in tears — who were being held with their families in makeshift detention facilities. Then came legal challenges, and soon afterward Obama administration officials decided to release the families pending the resolution of their asylum cases.
On other immigration issues, Mr. Obama took a looser stance. In 2012, he took executive action to protect young people who were brought to the United States as children, in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. He also eventually shifted the priorities for deportation, so that officials focused on removing convicted criminals, foreigners who posed national security threats and people who recently crossed the border.
“It was a huge sea change from two million deportations to ‘let’s just focus on bad actors,’” Mr. Sharry said.
The Trump administration has tried to end DACA, and, in contrast to Mr. Obama, is treating all people who have crossed the border without authorization as subject to criminal prosecution.