The separation of children from their parents has quickly replaced the North Korea deal as the story of the day, even as Trump brushes aside as a technicality the question of when North Korea disarms. Reporters had not sufficiently updated themselves on the new story so that they could do little more than express outrage when the Secretary of Homeland Security appeared before them three days ago. Nor did they pick up on what she said, which was devastating. She said people accompanying children would only be arrested if they could not prove they were the parents of the children. Did it not occur to the reporters to ask how that was supposed to be accomplished? Even a birth certificate would not do because those usually do not have photographs as if the photograph of a two or three day old baby looks like the two or four year old being presented at the border. A previous official, who had served in the Obama Administration, said you could see who were parents by how they interacted with the children and that was good enough for him. So what did the Secretary mean by “proof”? Moreover, she added, people who wanted to present themselves for asylum ought to present themselves at ports of entry, which means everyone who crossed elsewhere would not have to be treated as asylum seekers and so could be arrested. She went on to say that crossing the border illegally was a crime according to federal law, and so people violating it can be arrested and their children separated from them. But it is a misdemeanor rather than a felony and so such draconian measures are not required.
The real issue, however, is that there is no crisis at the border, no matter what the secretary says. There are seasonal variations, but the overall percent of illegal aliens resident in this country is about 3.5% of the American population, or 11 million people, and the net illegal migration into the United States has been negative since the Great Recession. Also, illegal immigrants commit fewer crimes than native born Americans. Moreover, we have a full employment economy, which means that the illegal immigrants are not taking away American jobs. Pay in the United States is stagnant not because of immigrants but because there have been no productivity increases in the last few decades and so no incentive for employers to raise wages. What Trump and his allies say is all made up.
So, what lies at the heart of this policy? I am forced to conclude that it is racism. Republicans of a certain ilk do not want to see the browning of the southwest. Chief of Staff John Kelly says that immigrants don’t assimilate very well, which is true enough if you mean that their children do not go to Harvard or MIT, but he is wrong if you consider that their grandchildren do and that Georgia Pacific plants trees it won’t harvest for a hundred years. (And how many generations did it take for Kelly’s forebearers to assimilate into American life?) Stephen Miller, the architect of the current policy, once said in the White House Press Room, that the Emma Lazarus poem “Give me your tired, your poor…” was only added late to the Statue of Liberty. As a matter of fact, it was composed to help raise money for the pedestal, and so was associated with the Statue of Liberty from its beginning. Miller’s false facts were just a way for him to buttress his case against the immigrant element in all of American history. The real fear of the racists is that the United States will become a majority minority nation, which it will in a few generations, but that holds no fears for me because its leaders will, as have the leaders of an overwhelmingly WASP nation, also gone to Harvard and Stanford. Let us recognize this battle over immigration as only the latest iteration of the racial wars that have gone on in this country since its founding.
The question arises whether what Trump has done is an impeachable offense. The definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors “ is left deliberately vague. It refers to any sort of transgression that is serious enough to be considered “high” without it being specified that it is either a crime or a misdemeanor, and so simply means bad conduct. It is easy enough to claim that Trump has crossed that line. We have never in this country separated parents from children. The Japanese internment camps of the Second World War are often cited as a parallel atrocity, but in those parents were not separated from children. They lived together as families even if the conditions at the beginning were unpleasant. This is a new low, and so Trump can be seen as having violated a standard of morality never seen before in the United States, unless you include the selling of slave children away from their parents, which was only one of the abominations of slavery. It is to be remembered that Andrew Johnson was impeached because he was supporting the ex-slaveholders against the Union that had so recently defeated them in war. The specific law he had violated had been crafted so as to prevent him from firing his Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, which he did anyway. Johnson was siding with the ex-rebels, and that seems a sufficient reason for impeachment whether or not he had violated a specific statute.
On the other hand, Donald Trump campaigned on being tough against immigrants across the southern border. He is not known for surprises. He is just living up to his promises, and so how can we fault him for doing that? America may have had a change of heart now that it sees what his policies lead to, but voters should have the imagination to know that a potential leader may mean what he says. We have seen that before. So it is the voter’s fault and only resolvable politically. But, on the third hand, can’t the American people see the error of their ways, come to their senses, and remove him before he does even more damage to the fabric of American life? This is unexplored territory.