One of the most memorable moments of the 2016 presidential debates was when candidate Donald Trump, discussing immigration, warned about ‘bad hombres’. It was a clear example of racially-charged dog whistle politics – and his opponent Hillary Clinton immediately countered that the US can’t start “ripping [immigrant] families apart.”
But now, deep into Donald Trump’s presidency, that’s exactly what is happening. Over the past few weeks, outraged Americans have been speaking out and harshly condemning the president’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy that separates kids from their parents and houses them in caged detention centres.
The policy stems back to May this year when Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department announced it would be prosecuting every single person that illegally crosses the US border: “The Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And the Department of Justice will take up those cases.”
As a result, more than 10,000 children are currently in custody and 1,995 minors have been separated from their “alleged adult guardians,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.
One facility housing these children is a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas – the largest licensed facility in the country. It now houses about 1,500 boys ages 10 to 17.
MSNBC reporter gained access to the facilities and posted images from inside, including the bizarre sight of a Donald Trump mural alongside the quote: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”
Video has also been released from inside the facility:
Michelle Brane, the director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told the Guardian about one girl she met at a detention centre: “She was so traumatized that she wasn’t talking. She was just curled up in a little ball.”
The situation is so dire it’s even drawn rare condemnation from both Donald Trump’s wife Melania, and former First Lady Laura Bush.
“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,” Melania’ communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told CNN on Sunday.
“This zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart,” wrote Laura Bush. “Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso.”
She went on: “These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
For his part, Donald Trump has been burying his head in the sand and falsely blaming his political opponents.
“The Democrats should get together with their Republican counterparts and work something out on Border Security & Safety. Don’t wait until after the election because you are going to lose!” he tweeted.
According to Politifact, however, there is no law mandating the separation of families – and Trump has the legal authority to change the policy right now.
So what happens now?
The best hope for resolving the controversy is an immigration bill currently working its way through Congress, written by Republicans in the House of Representatives. According to the New York Times, Republicans are seeking to include language “that would keep families together.”
But even if the bill passes Congress, which won’t at all be easy considering how thorny the problem of immigration is, it remains to be seen whether Trump will agree to sign the law – or use his presidential authority to veto it.
We’ll find out how the notoriously unpredictable president reacts when the bill comes up for a vote later this week.
*UPDATE*: The president tweeted this afternoon about the ongoing scandal and, continuing his pattern of refusing to take responsibility, has blamed the Democrats.