The flop-sweat is starting to show in Trump team’s scramble to defend child separation

Evolving lies, and a sudden rash of Bible-thumping.

A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

With faith leaders criticizing his asylum and family separation policies at the southern U.S. border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a few of his favorite lies about immigration law spiced up with a more aggressive rhetorical flair in Indiana on Thursday.

The speech landed right between two other prominent examples of the Republican regime’s increasing desperation to deflect attention from the cruelty of its border policies — a cruelty which Sessions made clear is quite intentional.

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“Our policies are discouraging people from making children endure that treacherous journey,” the nation’s top cop told a gathering in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He went on to make the same disingenuous claims about trends in the asylum-seeking process over the past decade that he’d used in a Monday address announcing new rules intended to turn victims of gang and domestic violence away at the border.

Just a couple hours earlier, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) gave a similarly muddy defense of Trump and Sessions’ new policy of rending families apart upon arrival. He blamed a 1997 settlement in a case called Flores for the brand-new-in-2018 federal policy of pulling children as young as four months old away from their mothers and placing them in indefinite detention centers that official visitors have likened to internment camps.

Parents have reportedly been told their children are being taken away for a quick shower when in fact they are being moved to separate, propaganda-laced facilities. A baby was reportedly plucked from her mothers’ breast while feeding. ICE has put out a flyer with a hotline that parents should call if they cannot find their kids.

Ryan claimed, however, that “we don’t want kids to be separated from their parents.” The law, he said, must change. But the zero-tolerance policy Sessions touted in a May speech is brand new to this administration. Ryan’s claim that the courts mandated the practice 21 years ago referred to a ruling “that no other president has interpreted to necessitate splitting up families en masse,” as the Huffington Post’s Elise Foley put it.

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Ryan’s new deflection marks an evolution in rhetoric from prior defenses of the Trump policy. Republicans have previously insisted that the practice arises from an unspecified law passed by unspecified Democrats in some unspecified past — instead of embracing, as Sessions did in Indiana, the fact that they are “our policies” enacted to help in “discouraging” Central and South American migrants from venturing north.

But both the new Ryan cover and the earlier claims about existing law are flat wrong, Amnesty International researcher Denise Bell told ThinkProgress.

“There is no law and no court decision that mandates the forcible separation of families,” Bell said. “They are creating a political crisis instead of following what Flores says, which is that families could be detained together for up to 21 days. And the solution is neither to detain nor forcible separate families, but to treat them humanely and fairly, and give them access to the asylum process.”

Hours later in Indiana, Sessions was also on the back foot.

“I have not made new law—I have simply restated and implemented what Congress has passed: asylum is generally not for those who have suffered a private act of violence. It is for members of groups who are persecuted by the state or whom the state will not protect from persecution. Members of those groups cannot go somewhere else in their home country. Most victims of private crimes can,” Sessions said. “Think about it. There are victims of crime all over the world—1.2 million violent crimes are committed every year in this country alone. Are all 1.2 million of these victims automatically entitled to asylum in Canada, the United Kingdom, or anywhere else they choose?”

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That’s a dodge. By pretending that the people he’s trying to bar from even requesting asylum are just like any old carjacking victim in Boise, the attorney general intentionally skirts the actual meat of the dispute he stepped into with Monday’s decision.

Your hypothetical robbery victim in the American midwest can call the cops and — especially if the victim is white — expect to have a statement taken and a description of their attacker put out over police radios to officers who will then try to scoop up anybody vaguely resembling the person they described. The entire premise of the immigration court decisions holding that crime victims in Central American countries can seek asylum here is that the police and governments of their home countries have themselves succumbed to gang rule. In the case of women seeking safety from their abusive partners, the argument is slightly more subtle but no less concrete: the same machista culture that drives their abusers has captured their police force and their lawmakers, such that their state willfully ignores their plights.

But to treat these deceptions as meriting a good-faith response is to risk losing sight of the brute realities of the Trump-Sessions-Ryan policy toward the terrified families their officers are intercepting, separating, and interning.

“In this system, you say ‘Where’s my child?’ and they tell you, I don’t know but you can call this phone number. They can’t find your child,” former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services counsel Ur Jaddou said in an interview. “How is a baby supposed to stay in contact with their parent? They took your child, oh here’s a flyer if you’ve lost your child call and we’ll try to help — when they’re the ones who took the kid in the first place.”

Several people deported under the Trump administration have told border activist groups that they have been unable to contact infant children who were taken from them by American security personnel as part of Session’s “discouraging” efforts. In one case reported by the group Raices Texas via MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, deported parents have been occasionally video-chatting with their 8-month-old baby via Skype for more than four months.

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If that starts to sound like a policy of mass kidnapping in the name of Sessions’ discouragement campaign, that’s because that is exactly what it is, Amnesty’s Bell said.

“The government does not plan on reuniting the separated families. What they’re trying to do is get families connected so that they can communicate through phone or Skype, but they do not plan to reunite them when they find one another,” said Bell.

“It fits a pattern of seeking to deter people from coming here to seek safety, and it flies in the face of fundamental human rights protecting parents, protecting children, and protecting refugees.”

Whether the regime is winning or losing this political fight, it’s one they’ve chosen. They are using children as leverage to badger Democrats into voting for funding to build the president’s much-ballyhooed border wall. But when the ugliness of one’s chosen tactics starts to fill the nightly news and prompt a moral hue and cry from often-apolitical religious forces, a political operation has to make a choice: Retreat, or reload?

As Sessions made clear in Indiana, and as White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reinforced later in her daily briefing, the administration’s ready to thump the Bible if it has to in order to defend its treatment of literal babies.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said in Fort Wayne.

That there is no existing law requiring his shiny new zero-tolerance policy did not come up Thursday, either in Indiana or the White House briefing room, where Huckabee Sanders offered the same argument without all the chapter-and-verse.

“It’s very biblical to enforce the law,” she said.