Apparently, the pictures and audio of crying babies, toddlers and older children separated from their parents at the border was too much even for Donald Trump's rock-solid base of supporters. Many religious leaders -- from Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelical minister Billy Graham, to Jentezen Franklin, a megachurch pastor from Georgia -- condemned the administration's policy of taking children away from asylum-seekers and immigrants alike when they crossed the southern border illegally. Finally, President Trump succumbed to pressure and signed an executive order to change direction going forward. He still plans on prosecuting as criminals those individuals who cross the border without permission -- which is a misdemeanor civil offense unless the person has been caught doing so previously -- but now his administration will detain parents and children together.
It isn't immediately clear whether this practice will be deemed legal. After a suit filed in 1985, the government agreed in a federal court settlement in 1997 to release juveniles caught at the border to relatives or legal guardians or to place them in facilities that provided the least restrictive conditions. The Trump administration abandoned this practice by detaining and charging the parents as if they were serious criminals and placing their children in federally supervised custody. The better approach now would be to go back to what the government has been doing for years -- quickly processing asylum-seekers and immigrants who have crossed the border illegally, jailing dangerous gang members and drug and human traffickers, and releasing others until their cases can be heard by a judge, attaching monitoring devices to keep track of them.
This process has allowed some people to slip through the cracks, but the majority appear when they are summoned. According to Justice Department statistics, from 2012 to 2016 (the latest figures available), between 20 and 39 percent of immigrants who were caught crossing the border illegally and were released without being detained failed to appear for their court hearings. But of those initially detained and monitored, the rate of failure to show in court was much lower, from 11 percent in 2012 to 25 percent in 2016. Given the falling rates of illegal immigration and the steady state of the undocumented population in the U.S., which has remained at roughly 11 million for more than 10 years now, continuing past practice or seeking ways to improve it short of locking people up for long periods seems the more prudent and humane approach.
But nothing about the Trump administration's approach to immigration is prudent or humane. Trump inveighs against undocumented immigrants, who he says "infest" our nation and bring crime with them, despite the fact that every reputable study of the issue shows that immigrants, including those here illegally, commit crimes at much lower rates than native-born Americans. The president has frequently used inflammatory rhetoric to describe immigrants. One of his favorites is a fable about an injured snake taken in by a kindhearted woman. She nurses it back to health, but then the snake fatally wounds her. "'Oh, shut up, silly woman,' said the reptile with a grin. 'You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.'" This kind of talk dehumanizes undocumented immigrants who come here to work at jobs Americans largely shun. He conflates families escaping murderous drug cartels with gang members and treats everyone, including those seeking asylum, as if they were criminals.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to prove itself feckless in dealing with the underlying cause of illegal immigration. We don't currently have laws that allow enough people to come here legally to fill the jobs that we need to be filled. Yet the Trump administration and hard-liners in Congress want to cut back on legal immigration rather than expand it. The House of Representatives failed to pass a bill Thursday to cut legal immigration by 25 percent in return for granting protections to some Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients -- a bad trade-off that would have made illegal immigration worse, not better. What we need is not a cut in legal immigration but an expansion, coupled with changes that place more emphasis on the skills we need in the U.S. workforce. The sooner the administration comes to terms with this the greater the chance of deterring illegal immigration along our southern border.