Reality TV: Children in Cages?

Terry H. Schwadron

June 19, 2018

The television images from detention facilities for children and young people caught up in immigration problems along the Southern border are not going away.

Neither, of course, is the intransigence of the Trump administration in enforcing its “zero tolerance policy” of using the tactics of separating children from families as a political lever to get what its wants out of Congress in terms of a guaranteed $25-plus billion Wall, reductions in legal immigration levels, elimination of “catch and release” mechanisms and what they call a merit-based system of allowing in new Americans.

Its kind of fascinating, in the manner of watching a slow-motion car crash, of the total failure of our governmental and political systems to deal with reality and to actually try to solve problems. For an administration that is as influenced as this one by the imagery of “reality television,” it seems a total political loser for the President and his administration to cling to poorly argued justifications for what basically is the abandonment of American moral values.

The President is scheduled to go to the Capitol today to talk with congressional Republicans about legislative approaches to “solving immigration,” from the resolution of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) issues to how asylum works to how the United States allows seasonal workers. Meanwhile, he doubled down publicly on the separation policy, even as his various spokespeople came up with clashing explanations.

Republicans are considering two measures, both of which give the president much of what he has demanded, including billions for construction of a border wall, sharp curbs on legal immigration and other security mechanisms. Of course, neither a conservative proposal nor a more moderate one that would allow families to be detained together was guaranteed enough support among party members who have long been split on how to deal with immigrants in the country or seeking entry. Nor does either address the non-legislative “zero tolerance” policies separating immigrating children from parents — something that Trump continues to falsely blame on laws adopted by Democrats. Nor do they really solve the DACA problem.

For Democrats, the issues are easy: They can hang back and let the television pictures do the heavy work of showing the Trump administration to be a cadre of ogres who are uncaring and who are doing permanent damage to the national image of a country that promotes human rights — except along its own borders.

Just how absurd some of the arguments in this debate within the overall immigration debate have become, consider how weird it is for First Lady Melania Trump to be the one in the administration to issue a public call to keep families together (as well as Laura Bush), or to see Breitbart News feature a semantic debate over whether cyclone-fence dividers in some of these huge youth detention centers accurate should be described as “cages,” as opposed to “fencing.”

So, I am surprised only that President Trump himself, an expert in image-making, would allow a television-image-based issue to dominate the debate.

There is only one conclusion: Trump wants this fight as good domestic politics, an appeal to his base voters, if you will.

Along the way, however, he seems to be ignoring tons of things that can be done here that would allow Trump to continue his political campaign without putting children and young people on the public chopping block.

· Let’s start with dropping the Biblical justifications for bad policy. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and others are taking it on the chin from clergy and lay people alike for claiming that specific Bible passages — those also used to justify slavery — allow for this policy of separating children and parents.

· Sessions also wrongly decided in the last week or so that systemic domestic violence should not fit under the definition of asylum requests. Again, this is not a law, this is a policy, in this case decided by a single individual who seems blind and deaf to the effects of government-allowed domestic violence.

· At the same time, let’s recognize this policy for what it is, a Trump administration campaign for political leverage, no more, no less. Trump has made it perfectly clear over time that he would throw anyone under the bus to gain what he wants. Why should immigrant children be any different?

· Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, flown in from New Orleans to face reporters at the White House, said there is no new policy, that this has been going on for years. Please stop. We can’t fix anything if we don’t acknowledge what is wrong. At the same time, Nielsen says asylum seekers who go to the official ports of entry, as in San Ysidro, are not subject to family separation. Instead, they spend weeks sleeping on the street, because we won’t set up additional temporary sign in facilities. In any event, can we finally acknowledge that as a tactic, this zero-tolerance policy is failing to deter new arrivals at the border?

· Where is the great negotiator? If he can fix decades of nuclear weapons standoff in two hours in Singapore, why is President Trump not meeting with government officials in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala to find out how best to keep people from wanting to flee gang warfare, street violence, economic morass and the rest. Maybe he can persuade those leaders to look to their beaches and to address the needs of people to remain in Central America.

· If Trump truly believes that the Wall is The Answer, why not start a public bond project that sells tax-free bonds to raise the public money in a different way, as cities and states do with stadiums or bridges, for example, and get this out of a Congress that cannot seem to agree on the day of the week.

It does not seem too much to ask our government officials to properly identify a problem, and to simultaneously address core origination issues and the process issues as easily as they identify scapegoats.

And the rest of us should accept the idea that we cannot remain silent about an issue of moral values.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer