LOS ANGELES — President Donald Trump this week repeated a falsehood he’s pushed several times before, that President Obama had a policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and that Trump had ended the practice.
To put it into fast-food context, that’s a quadruple whopper, with extra cheese.
During the Obama administration, family separations were rare and predicated upon two conditions: whether border officials felt the parents or guardians posed a threat to the children, or whether the adults, under U.S. immigration law, had to be detained based on prior criminal convictions.
Standard procedure, both in the civil immigration context and in the domestic criminal justice context, is to not incarcerate children with adults (yes, there are exceptions).
So when the Obama administration jailed an adult migrant, the minor was separated not as a part of a separations policy but as part of a policy to not jail children with adults. And to avoid just such separations, the adult detentions were rare.
“Obama generally refrained from prosecution in cases involving adults who crossed the border with their kids,” Peter Margulies, an immigration law expert at Roger Williams University School of Law, told Politifact last year.
How is that different from Trump’s approach? Well, under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the government adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for dealing with people crossing the border without permission.
In short, they charged as many adults as they could with a misdemeanor count of illegal entry (crossing the border without permission), then chose to jail them purposefully to force the family separation as a deterrence tactic.
The plan was to arrest border-crossing parents — the vast majority of whom were exercising a legal right to seek asylum — and charge them with a crime, something previous administrations did not generally do. And then the policy was to detain the adults rather than issuing a citation and releasing them, thus leading to the family separation. All of this was aimed at imposing draconian punishment on those who arrived at the border to serve as a warning to others who might follow.
And yes, it was as inhumane as it sounds. As The Times editorial board wrote Tuesday morning, “that was a policy so vile and destructive that even Trump, who has no shame, was eventually shamed into ending it.”
But not so shamed that Trump’s given up on the canard of blaming Obama for it. This is what he told reporters gathered to witness his meeting in the White House on Tuesday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi:
“Just so you understand, President Obama separated the children,” Trump said, then referred to images of children in cages shared on social media posts that erroneously tied them to the Trump administration. “Those cages that were shown — I think they were very inappropriate — they were built by President Obama’s administration not by Trump. President Obama had child separation. Take a look. The press knows it. You know it. We all know it. … I’m the one who stopped it. President Obama had child separation.”
Trump went on to endorse family separations as a deterrent though he said he didn’t intend to bring them back (the courts might have a say in that), and then bizarrely claimed that “President Obama has the law, we changed the law, and I think the press should accurately report it.”
Um, OK, what law did Trump change? I’d be happy to report on it.
Invoking the images of cages was a classic shift-the-focus ploy by Trump. The issue at hand isn’t cages but family separations, which the previous administration rarely did and which the current administration embraced as an aggressive response to people asking the U.S. government for help.
And the separations issue wasn’t the only lie he told in that short encounter. He repeated the falsehood that “we have the worst (immigration laws) of any country in the world,” claimed that “we are building a lot of wall” (in truth, just replacing some existing sections), and accused the Democrats of wanting open borders (they don’t).
That’s a lot of whoppers.
Martelle is a Los Angeles Times editorial writer.