Trump Tried to Blur Responsibility for His Family Separation Policy in Final Debate

Trump Tried to Blur Responsibility for His Family Separation Policy in Final Debate

Originally Published in The New York Times

Zolan Kanno-Youngs - October 23, 2020

President Trump repeatedly hurled the phrase “They built the cages” at his debate opponent Thursday, but separating children from parents was a policy all his own.

Migrants seeking asylum at the southwest border in Penitas, Texas, in 2019. Court documents filed this week showed that the deported parents of 545 migrant children who were taken from their families cannot be located.
Credit...Adrees Latif/Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Trump has never been known for making apologies or displaying regret, but when his policy of separating children from their families at the southwestern border arose during his debate with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday, he had a ready deflection for the “kids in cages” accusation.

It was Mr. Biden’s fault.

“They said, ‘Look at these cages; President Trump built them,’” Mr. Trump said. “And then it was determined they were built in 2014. That was him.”

Mr. Trump is correct that the Obama administration expanded the number of border facilities with chain-linked enclosures in 2014, but the journey from their construction to contend with a surge of Central American children crossing the border to Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of families was not captured by the president’s evasions. Nor is it explained by the “kids in cages” catchphrase often hurled by Mr. Trump’s opponents.

“It is one of the definitive phrases, but I don’t think sloganeering will ever bring you closer to why this disaster happened in the first place,” Cristobal Ramón, a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said of the “kids in cages” catchall. “You have to get beyond slogans.”

The Obama administration separated children from adults at the border only in cases when there was a doubt about the familial relationship between a child and an accompanying adult or if the adult had a serious criminal record.

Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was a deliberate act of family separation, meant to deter migrants from trying to enter the United States. It directed prosecutors to file criminal charges against everyone who crossed the border without authorization, including parents, who were then separated from their children when they were taken into custody.

That policy was ended amid international outcry, but its repercussions remain. Court documents filed this week showed 545 children still have not been reunited with their parents after the Trump administration resisted sharing information with a court-appointed committee of lawyers and advocacy groups tasked with finding their guardians.

But as with many of Mr. Trump’s prevarications, there was a nugget of truth to his assertions Thursday night. The holding of migrant children in chain-linked enclosures predated his administration.

Traditionally, migrants who crossed the border initially were held by the Border Patrol in stations designed for the short-term stay of a specific population: single Mexican adults who could be quickly returned to Mexico. In 2014, the demographic at the border shifted dramatically, to Central American families and unaccompanied children who surrendered to agents with the hope of obtaining protection in the United States.

A law designed to protect migrant children, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, prevented the U.S. government from rapidly turning away such families, since they had not traveled from a neighboring country. The families, who fled poverty, torture and persecution, were instead packed into the stations, prompting agents to cram some into adjacent concrete sally ports — essentially large garages — in the sweltering heat.

President Trump deflected  from his record on immigration during a debate with Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday. Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was a deliberate act of family separation, meant to deter migrants from trying to enter the United States.
Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“I went back to Washington and said you have a humanitarian disaster in front of you,” said Gil Kerlikowske, a former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, recalling his message to the Obama administration after a visit to the facilities in 2014.

The Obama administration then converted a warehouse in McAllen, Texas, into a facility that could hold more than 1,000 detainees. That facility, with chain fencing installed to separate adult men from mothers and children, would later be known as the Central Processing Center.

“They stood up what we thought would be a temporary structure” that would be better for families and children, said Ronald D. Vitiello, former deputy chief of the Border Patrol in the Obama administration and a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Mr. Trump. “In a nontechnical sense, are those cages? I guess you could call them that.”

The design, he said, was to “be open so you can see from one side of the facility to the other to protect people in it.”

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