IN ANY OTHER WHITE HOUSE, someone like Stephen Miller never would have had a job. Now Donald Trump’s 32-year-old senior adviser has caused his biggest outrage yet: the family separation crisis at the border, a shameful national crisis born of cruelty, incompetence, and prejudice.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, starting with Trump himself. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also faces calls for her resignation. Her performance at Monday’s White House press briefing — which White House press secretary Sarah Sanders reportedly did not want to do by herself — was one of the most baffling and Orwellian performances by a Trump cabinet member. But while Nielsen might be the face of the policy tragically unfolding at the border, Miller is reportedly the brains.
It’s hard to imagine an American who has not been appalled over the past two weeks as fresh images and audio pour in of children crying after being taken away from their parents at the border. When adults are criminally charged and jailed, in accordance with the administration’s new zero tolerance policy, their kids are then designated as “unaccompanied minors” and consigned to federal custody. At least 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since early May. In a horrendous case reported by the Globe’s Liz Goodwin, a public defender said children were taken “by Border Patrol agents who said they were going to give them a bath. As the hours passed, it dawned on the mothers the kids were not coming back.”
Until recently, families caught along the border after illegally entering the country were simply sent back, or released pending legal proceedings. Contrary to the White House’s spin, family separation on the scale of the last few weeks is unprecedented.
The shift can be traced to Miller, Trump’s anti-immigrant whisperer, a veteran of his presidential campaign. Miller is a longstanding supporter of restricting immigration, both legal and illegal; he also coauthored the administration’s ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries. Turning twisted notions of white nationalism into policy is the role Miller seems to have prepared for his whole life.
Miller has admitted that the family separations are intended to send a message. He told The New York Times last week that “no nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement. . . . It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.” Without saying so explicitly, the intent is clearly to deter would-be immigrants.
But there is no law that mandates the punishment of children — they are being punished solely for their parents’ perceived sins. Many will doubtlessly suffer lasting trauma as a result. To make the tragedy even worse, the White House has not established a proper procedure to reunite kids with parents.
While the administration created this crisis, and should be held accountable for it, Congress must be expected to alleviate it. Congressional Republicans have increasingly criticized the administration’s tactics, but they have the power to do more than talk. Congress should stand up to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and clarify, through legislation if necessary, that fleeing extreme gang violence indeed constitutes grounds to apply for asylum protections here. It must also fund an increase in resources to the immigration courts system, already straining with a massive backlog in asylum cases. (Republican Senators are reportedly considering legislation to address this.)
The chaotic, tragic scenes at the border are what happens when inexperienced crackpots run the country. Miller’s fingerprints are all over this crisis, and showing him the door would be a first step toward ending it.