Obama vs. Trump: The truth about the family separation policy
After Donald Trump's government instituted its policy of zero tolerance and proceeded to separate immigrant families detained at the border, many have argued that this is a measure previously imposed by the Obama administration. Is this true?
When we inaugurate a new political era, it is common to overlook the background of past governments.
In the case of the Trump administration, there have been many arguments from its officials and defenders who claim that nothing that the president has done against immigrants is new and that it had previously been used by the government of Barack Obama.
This, to the misfortune of the Trump government, is not entirely true.
Although during the previous administrations there was some type of family separation at the time while carrying out the prosecutions of undocumented immigrants in detention, the family separation policy is of Trumpian authorship.
"Bush and Obama did not have policies that resulted in the mass separation of parents and children like we’re seeing under the current administration," said analyst Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute to Fact Check.
Officials such as Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have argued that it is not a "new policy" but a way of "enforcing the law" established by previous governments.
However, DHS has not been able to corroborate figures from previous measures but has only published the numbers of children separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9, 2018, adding up to 2,342 children, according to reports.
"We have not seen any data out of the current or prior administration on how many cases that were prosecuted were individuals who arrived with minors," said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "So we cannot make guesses or assumptions about how many separations based on prosecution there were or are."
What is paradoxical is the Trump administration's insistence on blaming previous governments on "loopholes" or "catch and release" mechanisms to justify their measures; but when Trump officials are criticized for their new policies, then the previous governments are to blame for writing them.
It’s important to note that, as the New York Times explained, "for more than a decade, even as illegal immigration levels fell overall, seasonal spikes in unauthorized border crossings had bedeviled American presidents in both political parties, prompting them to cast about for increasingly aggressive ways to discourage migrants from making the trek."
This information does not imply that the administrations adopted policies of "zero tolerance" or something similar to "coerce" immigrants not to cross the border.
In 2005, the government of George W. Bush initiated a program called Operation Streamline, which referred all undocumented immigrants to immediate prosecutions, "imprisoning them and expediting assembly-line-style trials geared toward quickly deporting them," explains the Times. "The initiative yielded results and soon expanded to more border sectors. Back then, however, exceptions were generally made for adults traveling with minor children, as well as juveniles and people who were ill."
The Obama administration, for its part, also used the program to deal with the immigration crisis, but did not resort to "treating first-time border crossers as priorities for prosecution, and it detained families together in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody – administrative, rather than criminal, detention.”
This measure of 2014 cost Obama an intervention by the federal courts to suspend long-term family detentions, something that Trump now intends to put into practice.
Many claim that Obama's measures were even worse than Trump's when it comes to detaining and deporting - there are even those who have called him the "deporter in chief" - but, as we explained earlier, the figures are not absolute: Obama's arrests were carried out at the border, when the Trump administration's measures have expanded throughout the territory.
Trump assumed the government at a time when attempts to cross the border were particularly low, but these numbers have been increasing during his tenure, perhaps precisely because of his ability to mediatize everything he touches.
In short, and as Dara Lind explained in her column for Vox, while Obama adopted a mostly punitive approach in 2014 against those who cross the border, "Trump in 2018 took an entirely punitive one;" the difference is that "Obama was reacting partly to the circumstances; Trump reacts only to his own desires."