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In the early days of Donald Trump’s regime, Benjamin Wittes, editor of the Lawfare blog, coined an oft-repeated phrase about the president’s first, slapdash Muslim ban: “malevolence tempered by incompetence.” It’s a useful formulation; Trump’s fascist instincts would be much more dangerous if he had the discipline to pursue them systematically instead of spasmodically.
Yet sometimes Trump’s incompetence and malevolence are not at cross-purposes; instead, there’s a multiplier effect. This was true of the White House’s catastrophically inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. And it’s true of the cavalier way the administration took thousands of children from migrant parents with no process in place to reunite them.
On Wednesday, amid a mounting national outcry, Trump signed an executive order purporting to end his administration’s own family separation policy. It’s not clear how lasting the order’s impact will be. Trump wants to replace family separation with indefinite mass family detention, which would run afoul of legal precedent. (On Thursday afternoon, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon was assessing how and where to hold as many as 20,000 migrant children on military bases.) The administration is still using threats to children to pressure Congress to cut legal immigration and to fund a border wall. As The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, “Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned lawmakers during a private briefing on Capitol Hill that the family separations could resume if they fail to act.”
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For a moment, however, some families might have a reprieve from official sadism. On Thursday, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told The Post that it would stop referring parents caught crossing the border with their children for criminal prosecution until the infrastructure for family detention is in place.
Moments later, the Department of Justice contradicted this statement, saying the so-called “zero tolerance” policy is unchanged. If the C.B.P. official is correct, it would be great news. But the confusion about this fairly straightforward policy directive is just a tiny taste of the Kafkaesque hell that still faces frantic migrant parents trying to locate kids who’ve been taken from them. Trump’s executive order said nothing about reuniting children and parents who’ve already been separated. Messages from government agencies have been contradictory. There’s still no clear process for many of these parents to even find out where their kids are, never mind get them back.
Even experts are having trouble figuring out what the Trump administration has done with some of these kids. The Times described consular officials from Central America in “crisis mode” as they search for “children as young as 9 months old who did not appear to have been carefully tracked by the federal authorities.” Writing in The Post, an El Paso public defender named Erik Hanshew quoted an incredulous judge: “If someone at the jail takes your wallet, they give you a receipt. They take your kids, and you get nothing? Not even a slip of paper?”
Most competent disaster relief operations include family tracking systems to reunite displaced relatives. “Best practice is always to make sure that if families are broken apart for any reason, somebody is in charge of figuring out a system for putting them back together,” Emily Butera, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told me. Unlike most emergencies, family separation was deliberately engineered by the government, so planning for the aftermath should have been easier. Yet somehow no one appears to have thought to create a database to help parents and children locate each other.
Part of the reason for this failure could be Trump’s indifference to expertise. He appointed E. Scott Lloyd, an anti-abortion activist, to head the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency charged with caring for children after they’re separated from their parents. Lloyd had little discernible experience working with refugees, and he has spent a significant amount of time at ORR trying to prevent pregnant underage migrants from getting abortions. Nothing in his background indicates an ability to handle the sort of complex logistical and humanitarian challenge he’s now presented with.
On Friday, the A.C.L.U., which has sued to stop family separations, is meeting with a judge in the case to discuss the implications of Trump’s executive order. A.C.L.U. lawyer Lee Gelernt told me they planned to ask for an injunction ordering immediate family reunification. “The government’s efforts are ridiculous,” he said. “We can’t just let the government go along the way they’ve been going, where kids can spend eight months separated.”
The shambolic unfolding of this self-generated crisis recalls Trump’s handling of North Korea. First, he created an emergency through thoughtless belligerence. Then, after sparking international panic, he partially defused it in a hastily arranged spectacle. Finally, he declared victory, leaving the underlying problem worse than when he first got involved. (At a rally on Wednesday, he claimed, falsely, that North Korea had agreed to “total denuclearization” of the country. The same day, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that he was unaware of any steps North Korea had taken toward denuclearization since Trump’s summit with the country’s leader.)
When it comes to North Korea, it’s in most of our interests to play along with Trump’s Potemkin diplomacy, since as long as Trump thinks he’s solved a global problem, he won’t want to start a nuclear war. But no one should pretend that the family separation disaster is even close to being resolved until every family Trump thoughtlessly tore apart is back together.
On Thursday, the first lady, Melania Trump, visited a facility housing migrant children near the border. Inexplicably, as she boarded her flight to Texas, she wore a jacket that said on the back, in large white letters, “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” It’s hard to tell whether incompetence or malevolence was behind her choice, but we should take her sartorial taunt as a challenge. Nationwide demonstrations against the president’s family separation policy are planned for June 30. Trump’s executive order hasn’t made them any less necessary.
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