On Thursday, in an interview with the Christian news program CBN News, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a sharp departure from his previous statements on the unfolding humanitarian crisis at the southern border. “The American people don’t like the idea that we are separating families,” Sessions said. “We never really intended to do that. What we intended to do was to make sure that adults who bring children into the country are charged with the crime they have committed.”
But, in fact, the federal government did intend to separate families. In May, on a trip to two sites near the southwest border, Sessions made it explicitly clear that the forced disintegration of families was a deliberate part of his new “zero tolerance” policy. At the first stop, delivering prepared remarks, he said, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” At the second stop, Sessions added: “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
Sessions’s words will be parsed. There will be arguments about what constitutes intent in this context. The perpetual argument over when it’s appropriate for journalists to use the word lie will probably resurface at some point. What really matters, however, is what Sessions’s lie reveals.
On the surface, it’s just the latest in a succession of political flip-flops that have defined the Trump era. The president shifts his positions not only with the polls, but with the opinions of talking heads on television, and sometimes with the views of the last people with whom he has spoken. His aides struggle to keep up with these rapid shifts, which means that on every position from health care to criminal-justice reform to tariffs, there are usually soundbites of everyone in the administration saying everything. In this, Trumpism might be defined mostly by a lack of conviction and a corresponding unwillingness to ever own up to any one policy decision. The evolving White House take on its blamelessness in the destruction of families would seem to be a prime example of this nihilism as the prime and only directive.
But that conclusion misses out on the pattern of who tends to be hurt by this policy of manifold misdirection. For the thousands of families torn apart by zero tolerance—some perhaps permanently so—and for the children detained and subject to psychologically and physically harmful conditions, there’s no remedy for the Trump administration’s blunder. The same is true of the Puerto Ricans—perhaps thousands— who died in Hurricane Maria while the president bemoaned the size of the ocean between them and the contiguous United States. Even now, while the president attempts to cut a heroic figure with an executive order pledging to end a crisis of his own making, his supposed heroism lies not in suddenly respecting the human rights of the brown masses on the border, but in respecting the will of his own base. Mercy isn’t the order of the day—mass detention and imprisonment will continue.
The idea that the federal government did not intend to tear infants from their mothers is contradicted by statements from leaders of every department involved in the deportation apparatus, and by the chief executive himself. In March 2017, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, current White House chief of staff and then–Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly called the prospect of forced separation a “tough deterrent.” Earlier this month, after the policy began to be implemented, Acting Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families Steven Wagner said in reference to the prospect of family separation, “We expect that the new policy will result in a deterrence effect.” In his regular tweet storms, Trump has offered support for this interpretation, tweeting last week that “children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country.” As outlined by the administration, the primary purpose of its zero-tolerance policy and of separating children from families was to make the penalty harsh enough to deter people from crossing the border.
In response to weeks of unfavorable press and grim polling, administration officials have tried numerous approaches to defend themselves. As my colleague Adam Serwer notes, the main defenses—that forced separation isn’t happening, that it’s actually good for children, and that it’s required either by law or by inaction from Congress—were inherently contradictory. But as he signed an executive order that may or may not actually end the destruction of family units, the president tried a new argument, deflecting responsibility for his own policy. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” he said. The order itself takes the same tack, blaming Congress for “hav[ing] put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law.”
“Look what you made me do” is an argument more often offered by toddlers than presidents. But Sessions’s words on Thursday signaled that it’s the administration’s new line.
The United States has a well-documented history of abuses at the border and child-snatching from minority families, one that stretches across administrations past and present. Racism has for centuries set the parameters of who belongs in America and who doesn’t, and has at the whims of its champions created penalties to enforce its borders, whether at a fence in Texas or discriminatory housing covenants in suburbia. The statements from Trump officials in the current saga help illuminate this logic of immigration and citizenship in America. Whether it decides to keep families together or not, and regardless of what it intended to do in the first place, the administration has one consistent through line: Its policies always serve to dehumanize those deemed not to belong.