WASHINGTON – For over a year, Trump administration officials made clear what their “zero tolerance policy” on migrants arriving at the US border with Mexico would look like in practice. On cable news shows and in prepared speeches, they brusquely declared their willingness to isolate children from their parents in order to send a message of “deterrence” to those coming north from Central America – a warning that entering the US illegally would have unforgiving consequences.
Cabinet officials such as Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and then-homeland security secretary John Kelly, who now serves as chief of staff, characterized the new policy as a tough yet necessary approach to a steady stream of immigrant children arriving at the border. They said that children were being used by accompanying adults as “tickets” and “passports” for entry. And they were convinced that Americans who voted Donald Trump into office would support an unsympathetic policy that, in their words, “strictly enforces the law.”
But their confidence waned this week, as the inevitable results of their policy were laid bare on screens around the world showing broken children behind steel cages under the fluorescent lights of abandoned Walmarts. Recordings of their cries were played out on every major news channel, on the Senate floor, and in the White House briefing room, as Kelly’s successor, Kirstjen Nielsen, defended the policy against widespread criticism.
Trump, too, defended the policy as though its execution were out of his hands. On Monday, he told reporters that Democrats were to blame for the shift in the Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement posture, and said that Congress was responsible for passing legislation that would fix the mess. He wanted a bill that would address other immigration matters, such as funding for his border wall, sparking anger on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill that Trump was using detained children as hostages for a legislative win on his signature policy priority.
He backtracked just two days later, on Wednesday, faced with pressure from members of his own party and administration, from his wife and daughter and from two-thirds of the American people, who opposed the policy (58% of Republicans, however, indicated support for the move, according to a CNN poll released this week). Trump reluctantly signed an executive order keeping families together going forward, effectively acknowledging that his prior line – that he did not have the authority to end the crisis – was a lie.
“The dilemma is that if you’re weak, as some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people,” Trump said on Wednesday, explaining his internal debate, “and if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.”
The short-lived policy was characterized as “child abuse” by the American Academy Of Pediatrics, as “torture” by Amnesty International, as “immoral” by the pope, and as “disastrous” and “unconscionable” by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. That last criticism, just one day before the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council, was seen as all too convenient timing to some.
“Officially leaving over bias against Israel,” inquired Fox News’ Steve Doocy, “but it is raising some eyebrows, us pulling out of this council, because it follows one day after their high commissioner criticized the United States over President Trump’s immigration policy, separating families.”
“Well, it had nothing to do with that,” replied John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, in an interview on Wednesday morning.
“This decision was made by President Trump weeks ago, it followed long decision- making and review of the Human Rights Council’s performance, and, as I say, it’s something that reflects a widely held view in the United States.”
WHILE SOME defenders of the council continued linking the two issues throughout the week, most American Jewish organizations addressed the matters separately, lauding the decision to withdraw from the UN body while condemning Trump’s border policy.
“While this administration continues to tear apart immigrant families, we will never stop fighting for our shared values of equality and our vision of America as a nation that believes in and strives for justice and fair treatment,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the ADL, before Trump relented on Wednesday.
“These policies are inhumane, and we will not stand by, just watching it happen. The administration must stop the family separations and allow immigrants the right to seek safety and asylum without fear that their children will be torn from them as cruel punishment.”
Other Jewish American organizations condemned the policy, as well. An interfaith group of 40 Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim clergymen visited the border to express outrage.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America began circulating a petition calling on Nielsen to resign. And the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Rabbinical Assembly and Hadassah, alongside 20 other organizations, wrote to Sessions and Nielsen, imploring them to end the “cruel punishment” of innocent young ones.
The policy “undermines the values of our nation and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of thousands of people,” their joint letter read. “As Jews, we understand the plight of being an immigrant fleeing violence and oppression. We believe that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and how we treat the stranger reflects on the moral values and ideals of this nation.”
Criticism from Jewish groups was familiar, echoing previous condemnations around Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists, his campaign call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, his ties to white supremacists, his presidential executive order to halt all immigration from several Muslim-majority nations, and his embrace of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, among other moments.
The same groups that criticized Trump during those crises condemned him once again this week, but the small minority of American Jews that support him – largely for his policies on Israel – remained silent, as they always have.
Despite a strong base of support, Trump may have seen a growing problem, as detention centers overflowed into “tender age” facilities for babies, and the media coverage compounded one tragic image after another. It remains to be seen if his reversal came too late to save some of the critical support he will need to hold onto Congress in the midterm elections.