President Donald Trump’s administration started and carried out a policy that took more than 4,000 children from their parents, at least 545 of whom are still split apart years later. But at Thursday’s debate, the president insisted that he did nothing wrong at all ― blaming his Democratic predecessors and even insisting the kids are doing fine.
“They are so well taken care of,” Trump said of the children taken from their parents by his administration. “They’re in facilities that were so clean.”
Trump’s first term was marked by a full-out assault on immigration, both legal and unauthorized. The most dramatic was his “zero tolerance” policy on unauthorized border-crossing, used in a 2017 pilot program and expanded more broadly in 2018, that led to criminal prosecution of parents and locking up their kids separately. Splitting up families was intentional and calculated, according to multiple reports.
Thanks to mass public outrage and a court order, Trump was forced to stop his family separation policy. Most families were reunited, but the American Civil Liberties Union, which was part of the lawsuit against the government that stopped the policy, said this week that at least 545 kids are still away from their parents.
“Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated,” Democratic nominee Joe Biden said during the debate. “And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.”
Moderator Kristen Welker asked Trump twice how these families would be reunited. Instead of answering the first time, he complained about “bad people” and “cartels” bringing children to the U.S., and boasted about his border wall. The second time Welker asked if he had a plan to reunite families, Trump said only, “Yes, we are trying very hard.”
Then he launched into discussing who is, in his mind, the real victim: himself. He complained that people referenced kids being held in “cages,” which he said were actually created by Biden and President Barack Obama.
“They did it,” Trump said. “We changed the policy.”
Biden and Obama do not have a spotless immigration record ― they carried out record deportations and presided over an influx in migrants, including unaccompanied kids, at the border who were at times temporarily held in poor conditions. During those major influxes, children were photographed in fenced-in temporary holding centers, similar to the “cages” criticized under Trump.
But the idea that Biden was too tough on immigrants is a laughable argument from Trump. The Obama-Biden administration did not systematically separate families as a deterrent. It created new deportation priorities to deemphasize people with deep ties to the U.S. It created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to allow so-called Dreamers who came to the U.S. as kids to stay. It pushed for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship, and for another deferred action program for parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. It expanded refugee resettlement.
Trump, by contrast, eliminated deportation priorities. He tried to end DACA. He has held any immigration bills hostage to his desire to build a wall and slash legal immigration. He cut refugee resettlement.
And, whether he wants to discuss it or not, he presided over the separation of thousands of children, including newborns, from their parents.
As Biden noted, the discussion of “cartels” was a distraction.
“They separated them at the border to make it a disincentive to come to begin with,” Biden said. He added later, “Their parents were with them. They got separated from their parents, and it makes us a laughing stock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation.”