Families will be kept together — in detention. What does Trump hope to gain?

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

President Trump met Wednesday with Republican members of Congress on immigration in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

By Evan Horowitz Globe Staff 

President Trump has signed an executive order to end the policy of separating families caught crossing the souther border.

It’s a stark reversal for the administration, which had claimed that the policy was required by law and could only be undone by Congress. But the new order isn’t a full return to the status quo. Families claiming asylum will now be subject to indefinite detention, in defiance of a court-mandated rule that is supposed to prevent children from being detained for more than 20 days, even with their parents.


It’s unclear whether this new stance will quiet critics and win back support from conservative religious leaders. But it raises questions about the long-term goal behind the administration’s recent actions.

What vision of eventual success first engendered the policy of putting children into cage-like facilities and now has the administration picking a fight with federal courts?

Here are some reasons Trump might be willing to lose this battle, in the name of a bigger win down the road.


At some level, families that come to the United States are making a calculation. They weigh the options, then decide that the benefits of illegally crossing into the United States — new economic opportunities or less violence — outweigh risks like being extorted by a smuggling ring and living in perpetual fear of deportation.

If the risks of immigration suddenly rise, this whole calculation changes. And adding new risks is just what Trump’s policies have done. By showing the world, and potential migrants, that the United States is prepared to detain families, even at a huge reputational cost, the Trump administration could conceivably deter others from attempting the journey.


If this is indeed the guiding strategy, it would explain the administration’s mixed messages. Courts have ruled that punitive deterrence of this sort is not allowed; you can’t punish real people in hopes of dissuading theoretical border crossers. Which means the Trump administration would have to offer some other public rationale.

Even then, it’s not clear that deterrence is a smart strategy. Border crossings remain at historically low levels, and research suggests that deterrence doesn’t work well — not least because it’s hard to dissuade people willing to cross thousands of miles to reach the United States.

Leverage with Congress

Efforts to reform the US immigration system had largely stalled in Congress, but thanks to the administration’s recent action, they’re back atop the agenda.

And now, the White House has got itself a new bargaining chip. With some credibility, it can say: We don’t care about the courts. We believe this family detention policy is necessary, so we’re implementing it. If you disagree, and want us to back down, what can you offer in exchange?

House Republicans seeking a compromise may have to concede more to the administration —for a border wall, or steeper cuts in legal immigration — if they hope to resolve the situation and avoid an eventual veto.

Trouble here is that any congressional bill would need to attract Democratic support, in order to overcome a Senate filibuster. So if the administration uses its leverage to make legislation more conservative, it would probably reduce the odds of passage.

Red meat for the midterm


With Trump still widely unpopular, except among committed Republicans, and tax reform failing to inspire voter passion, Republicans need something to motivate their base. Otherwise, they risk losing control of Congress come November.

Taking a clear stand against illegal immigration could help Trump rekindle some of the fiery nationalism of his campaign days, when he disparaged Mexican immigrants and led chants of “build a wall.” Perversely, criticism of his hardline policies could actually reinforce the claim that he’s standing up for real Americans, fighting back against out-of-touch globalists.

Recent polling suggested that his family separation policy was a bit too bloody, even for members of Trump’s party. Only about half of Republicans supported it. But perhaps the new policy of indefinite family detention will win plaudits from a wider audience and help hold back a Democratic wave.

No strategy, only strategies

There is one last possibility: that the family-separation-policy-turned-indefinite-detention-policy isn’t motivated by some grand, secret plan, just the normal policy-making chaos that has typified this administration.

Some in the White House, like immigration hawk Stephen Miller, appear to genuinely believe that a crackdown on families is not just the right policy, but also the best political move in the larger effort to make economic nationalism the keystone of the Republican party.

Others, including the person overseeing the policy — Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — seem to have pushed back in private before acceding to Trump’s demand. Still others, like chief of staff John Kelly, are going to the gym in the middle of the day and generally doing their best to survive in this tempestuous working environment.

So perhaps the real reason the administration can’t consistently defend its immigration policies is that it’s riven by an internal struggle about a policy that never got full buy-in or due vetting.

Still, in the end the cossacks work for the czar — which is a way of saying that the policies of the Trump administration come from Trump himself. Miller might be the brainchild, Nielsen the public face, and Congress the scapegoat, but on some basic level this crackdown is happening because Trump wants it to happen — for strategically brilliant reasons, or not.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US He can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.