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The Roots of Trump's Deportation Policy

The bureaucratic machinery pulling families apart was built long before the sitting president assumed office.
U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12th, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.

U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12th, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.

At the end of May, the Trump administration revealed that federal officials had lost an estimated 1,500 migrant children separated from their parents, unveiling plans to shunt unaccompanied minors into makeshift tent cities and military bases in states like Texas and Arizona. Amid the public outcry, the commander-in-chief claimed that, of all things, it was Democrats who were "forcing" him to break up families upon their interception by Customs and Border Patrol.

This is not true. The Trump administration announced back in May that it would start aggressively prosecuting migrants under a new "zero tolerance" policy—one that threatened indefinite detentions and the separation of families as part of its deterrence strategy, as the New York Times noted. "If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the time. "If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."

The truth is, while it's wrong of President Donald Trump to say that Democrats forced his hand, it's not wrong to say they played a role. While the mental gymnastics surrounding this current spate of child separations is distinctly Trumpian in its bluntness—only Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders could even try to proclaim that breaking up families is justified in the Bible with a straight face—the bureaucratic machinery pulling families apart was built long before the sitting president assumed office. To suggest otherwise is to grapple not with the cause of America's cruel border policy, but a maddening symptom of it.

The last time the question of unaccompanied migrant children came up was during the administration of President Barack Obama, which (despite extending some protections for migrant children) ended up overseeing the deportation of 2.5 million people between 2009 and 2015 alone—more than any other single presidency in American history. In 2014 in particular, the Obama administration faced a flood of some more than 70,000 unaccompanied minors arriving at the border annually; a report from humanitarian non-profit Child Trends two years later found that, of the minors who did manage to escape the cartel violence of Guatemala of Honduras, some 71 percent would end up doomed to bureaucratic limbo and a series of never-ending traumas at the hands of CBP personnel. Besides, it was the Obama administration that in 2016 ramped up efforts on family deportation raids targeting Central American mothers and children.

Did Democrats suggest tossing migrant children in cages inside old warehouses and tent cities on military barracks along the border? No, but even if we're not talking about forcibly separating parent and child, it's worth noting that 21 percent of all migrant detainees are housed in "contract" prisons, according to a 2016 Department of Justice report that found those facilities "incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable institutions." And it's not as though Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters or foster homes were much better under the Obama administration: A 2016 Department of Health and Human Services report detailed allegations of "sexual misconduct by contract staff in [ORR] contracted facilities [and] extortion scams of ORR sponsor families."

None of this is to say that the Obama and Trump administrations' approaches to border security are equal. Sessions is responsible for 2,000 migrant children being detained in just the last six weeks—a number that tops anything under Obama. But, as Quartz notes, there are several instances of CPB cruelty that are often attributed to Trump's policies that date back to Obama: that viral photo of migrant children in caged cells, a Senate report on migrant children handed over to known human traffickers, the existence of a special bus for detained children. What's more, the American Civil Liberties Union detailed egregious misconduct on the part of border patrol agents between 2009 and 2014.

This all suggests an important point: Hundreds of children have ended up separated from their families by the United States' immigration system, and the fault lies with White Houses both past and present. Because really, the Trump administration just made its predecessor's immigration tactics a feature instead of a bug.