Border Patrol head can’t answer point-blank question on the morality of splitting migrant families

But he can spin historically low levels of border-crossing into a "crisis" that justifies cruelty to children.

U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum-seekers into custody on June 12, before separating them from their families pursuant to Trump policy at the time. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum-seekers into custody on June 12, before separating them from their families pursuant to Trump policy at the time. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s congressional allies and appointees have tied themselves in verbal and logical knots in their scramble to defend his decision to split up migrant families upon arrival to the United States. But the man who heads his border security team has found a way to slip those rhetorical snares: Just don’t bother trying.

Asked point-blank by Politico’s Luiza Savage about the “moral dimension” of traumatizing children by dividing them from their families simply for crossing a border in the wrong place, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin McAleenan only addressed his agency’s moral responsibility to those families before and after they are detained and divided.

“I think the moral dimension is we need to protect them. We need to protect them ideally before they even undertake this perilous journey and are victimized by smugglers, that are put in stash-houses, and many lose their lives in the process,” McAleenan said Tuesday. “But our responsibility when they’re here is to care for them as humanely and safely as we possibly can.”

He went on to describe his agency’s role in detaining children as “challenging custody situations” because CBP’s facilities were designed for adult criminals not minor innocents.


The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics called the family separation policy — ostensibly ended some seven weeks after Trump launched it, through a murky executive order that generated more confusion than clarity among McAleenan’s agents and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ federal prosecutor teams — “child abuse.”

Savage invoked those comments from Dr. Colleen Kraft in her question, noting that McAleenan has children of his own and asking him to address the morality of the policy his agents carry out. By deflecting that moral inquiry back onto the desperate journeys migrant families have taken, in many cases to escape endemic violence and an indifferent-or-worse government in their home countries, the CBP head partially echoed the spin that other Trump officials have used. But where others have insisted that the policy itself is righteous, McAleenan declined to defend — or even to address — the morality of the separations themselves.

That telling omission came after a separate deception at the very top of the interview, which took place at the Politico Pro Summit but has only been released in snippets by the news company thus far. When Savage pointed out that overall border crossings are dramatically down from their late-90s and early-2000s highs, and wondered if claims that undocumented migration is at “crisis” levels might be overblown, McAleenan dipped into a different bag of tricks.

He did not contest the raw numbers, which show that border arrests are at less than half their early-2000s levels and that unlawful crossings between official ports of entry are down even more dramatically. Instead, the commissioner switched the focal point of the analysis. Families are venturing to the southern U.S. border from much farther away than they did in the ’90s, he said, making for a more treacherous total journey. Political violence in Mexico is up compared to recent years, he said. For those reasons — even though fewer people are coming across the border than before — “I would say that’s a crisis,” McAleenan said.


If you’re going to do something immoral, like mess up the psychological health and neurological development of children by ripping them away from their mothers, it helps to make people believe that you’re only doing it because you have to. The notion of a crisis is therefore an important bulwark in the Trump administration’s broader migrant con.

If the president and his functionaries are seen to be hurting people just to make good on his xenophobic and racist electoral narrative and campaign promises, that might not fare so well with whatever supposedly neutral voters there are in the world. But the Trump team is betting that enough white Americans hate the specter of mass migration that they’re willing to sing along with these liar’s hymns: that there is a crisis of undocumented immigration (even as every available data point suggests a historically low ebb tide of border crossings), and that it is driven by grim and exaggerated bugaboos like MS-13 and drug cartels (rather than by vast humanitarian crises in the American hemisphere).