Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Cruelty, deception and incompetence


The most damning aspect of the Trump policy of forced family separation is its inherent, intentional cruelty.

It is not cruelty inflicted as an unfortunate side effect. Cruelty is itself the goal, the purpose, the product that is being manufactured.

“What is the pressure point that can give us the most leverage?” members of the Trump administration seem to have asked themselves. “How can we inflict the most pain possible on those coming here seeking refuge and safety, and even better, how can we use that pain to force Congress to fund the president’s precious wall?”

The answer was obvious, as it is to villains in countless Hollywood movies: You do it through the children, through trauma inflicted on parent and child alike. The outlines of the “Sophie’s choice” that the Trump administration is trying to force upon Congress is obvious:

Give us funding for the wall, agree to dramatically slash levels of legal immigration, and then and only then will we agree to stop doing this to families. And if they refuse?

Then according to President Trump, everything that happens -- the wail of a three-year old taken from her parents, the anguish of fathers and mothers with no idea where their children might be -- are the fault of the Democrats and others in Congress.


As others have pointed out, the claim that “Don’’t blame me, it’s your fault that you’re making me do this” is not leadership, it is the logic of the domestic abuser.

None of this should be surprising. Cruelty and aggression for the sake of cruelty and aggression is a hallmark of this administration, because cruelty and aggression are easy to pass off as toughness. That’s the approach they’ve taken to just about every policy area, from trade negotiations and  health care for our fellow Americans to, in this case, immigration.

Then there’s the lying, the utterly false protestations of innocence, that is also a Trump hallmark. In a White House press conference Monday, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was asked point-blank whether the administration had decided to separate parent from child as a way to send a message, as a deterrent.

“I find that offensive,” Nielsen sputtered angrily. “Why would I ever create a policy that does that?”

Why? Trump chief of staff John Kelly, Nielsen’s mentor and champion, told us exactly why.

Back in March of 2017, when Kelly was still Homeland Security secretary, he was asked whether the administration was really contemplating separating parents from children at the border.

“I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America” making the dangerous trek north toward the United States, Kelly affirmed to CNN. “Yes, I am considering, in order to deter movement along this terribly dangerous network, I am considering exactly that.”

Other Trump officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have also admitted that it is a policy intended to be so cruel as to deter in-migration.

In that same White House briefing, Nielsen tried to justify the new policy by claiming that in many cases, the people bringing children across the border aren’t really parents, that the kids are being used as cover for criminals and gang members.

“Let’s just pause to think about this statistic: 314 percent increase in adults showing up with kids that are not a family unit,” Nielsen said. “Those are traffickers, those are smugglers, that is MS-13, those are criminals, those are abusers.”

Put that way, it sounds like a major problem. But look deeper, at the actual numbers: In the first five months of the year, 31,102 family units were caught trying to cross the border illegally; just 191 were suspected of not being true families. While that may be a 314 percent increase over the previous year, it still represents a microscopic, 0.61 percent of such family crossings. Pretending otherwise is deception, pure and simple.

And then, of course, there’s the third hallmark of Trump policy: Utter incompetence.

The administration policy hasn’t at all had the deterrence effect that its designers expected. As a result, they aren’t prepared to handle the logistics of a policy that they have been contemplating for more than a year. Most astonishing and heartbreaking, according to the New Yorker, “No protocols have been put in place for keeping track of parents and children concurrently, for keeping parents and children in contact with each other while they are separated, or for eventually reuniting them.”

The result is that in case after case, kids are being stranded on this side of the border with no means of getting them home because U.S. authorities don’t know where their deported parents might be, and in some cases where the children are either. In one case, a four-month-old baby separated from its father remains in custody four months later, with its parents reduced to visiting the eight-month-old through Skype. 

That does send a message, but not one that should fill Americans with pride.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.