Stop Covering Family Separation Like a Political Horse Race

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As public vitriol intensifies over Donald Trump’s policy of ripping immigrant children away from their parents, a number of Republicans have come out of the woodwork, about six weeks too late, to denounce the practice.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he doesn’t “want kids to be separated from their parents.” Self-styled “moderates” Susan Collins and Jeff Flake sent a letter to the administration requesting more information about what’s happening at the border. “It is inconsistent with our American values to separate these children from their parents unless there’s evidence of abuse or another very good reason,” Collins said on “Face the Nation.”

Much of the media coverage of the “zero-tolerance” policy frames the fight to end the Trump administration’s horrific actions as some sort of legislative stalemate. Republicans and Democrats, the thinking goes, are both “outraged” about what’s happening and just need to figure out some sort of compromise:


“Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike on Sunday called for Congress to pass a law ending the Trump administration’s practice of separating and detaining families trying to cross the border into the United States,” Karoun Demirjian wrote in the Washington Post. “But the two sides remain sharply divided on what that bill should look like.”

Axios’s Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen helpfully granted GOP sources anonymity to share this insight: “Republican lawmakers plan to increase pressure on President Trump to roll back a ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy resulting in parents being separated from children.” And, according to Time, Republicans are “dividing” and “splintering” in their support for Trump’s family separation policy.


All of this is despite the fact that as of now, not a single Republican has signed onto Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Keep Families Together Act, a bill that would actually prohibit Trump from separating families. After Joe Manchin finally signed onto the bill on Monday, all 49 Democrats in the Senate are now co-sponsoring the legislation. In practice, Republicans are actually quite unified in doing nothing to kill Trump’s policy.


Even the draft of the more “moderate” immigration bill that is currently circulating through the House doesn’t actually ban the practice of separating families. As Vox’s Dara Lind explained on Friday, it merely allows the administration to detain kids the same way it detains adults:

The only reason the House bill could possibly end the separation of families would be if the Trump administration decided that because they now didn’t have to release children from detention, they would stop prosecuting parents, and they would make an effort to keep families together in ICE detention.


This should be the only evidence that the press needs to see that Republicans aren’t actually serious about ending Trump’s policy. There is no need for backdoor dealmaking or legislative handwringing—Republicans hold a majority in both houses and have the ability to pass Feinstein’s legislation right now if they want to. Even if Trump vetoed the bill, a party famous for obstruction could come up with a million ways to grind the president’s agenda to a halt until he stops this incredibly cruel practice.

Understanding family separation as an issue to be tackled by legislative compromise is exactly in line with the agenda the Trump administration has been pushing for weeks. It’s a complete lie—the president is choosing to prosecute migrants as criminals and use family separation as a deterrent. He has unilateral power to stop doing so, if he chooses.


What’s happening at the border is a humanitarian crisis. One party wants to stop it and the other doesn’t. There’s no legislative compromise for halting the rounding up of children in cages, no bipartisan trade-off that Democrats should be required to find for Republicans to sign on. This is not akin to political horse trading about, say, the debt ceiling. The media should stop writing about it as if it were.