It is easy to see Trump’s handling of his ‘family separation’ policy on America’s border with Mexico as self-contained episode. In early June Trump and his Attorney General instituted a policy of separating the children of illegal migrants from their parents when they are arrested by US border patrol as a form of ‘deterrence’, provoking both domestic and international outcry.

Trump’s press secretary originally maintained that this was not official government policy but the President himself contradicted her by claiming it was a tough but necessary step.

The President then argued that his policy was simply a continuation of the Democrats’ policy of deportation, before then finally signing another executive order, u-turning on the policy he had instituted only a month before. While this has clearly been a fumbling start to his ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, it is perhaps only a taste of things to come.

A century old problem

Migration across the roughly 3100km border between Mexico and the US has not always been a controversial issue. During the second half of the 18th century towns on both sides of the border boomed on the back of American investment in railways and mining and due to the free movement of labour. Even today it is the most crossed border in the world with roughly 350 million legal crossings every year.

Such unhindered access would not last. The instability brought about by the 1910 Mexican Revolution exacerbated the economic differences between the two countries and set a precedent that the US was the destination of choice for anyone fleeing their homeland or looking for a better life. So many came that the US began to impose immigration restrictions in 1924.

While much of the migration into the US is legal, a considerable number of people cross the vast US border illegally for a multitude of reasons. While exact figures are unavailable it is estimated that there are an estimated 12 million people living in the US illegally – a considerable number of which crossed the US-Mexico border either alone or with their families.

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The US-Mexico border is already heavily fortified. Photo credit: Office of Representative Phil Gingrey

Different presidents have attempted to deal with this in different ways, President Reagan offered citizenship to many and argued that illegal migration into the US was linked to the under-development of Latin America, George W. Bush expanded the border patrol and Obama engaged in large scale deportations of illegal migrants while also presiding over a surge in unaccompanied minors reaching the border.

During the 2016 election campaign Trump effectively linked the issue of illegal migration to crime, drugs and national security; three hot button issues during the campaign. He regularly appeared with ‘Angel families’ – relatives of people killed by illegal immigrants – and his idea of building a wall seemed to be the most comprehensive solution to a problem that most American presidents have done their best to avoid.

The inevitable result of populist promises?

During the 2016 election campaign Trump’s signature policy was the building of a massive wall covering the entirety of the border as a matter of national security. His original proposal of making Mexico pay for the wall seems to have been dropped and its completion date and cost remain unclear.

This is highly problematic for a president who is almost halfway through his term and has promised to fix the US border crisis. This new zero-tolerance policy seem to be a consequence of the President’s hunger for a hands-on rather than a passive approach to the situation as well as the fact that a long-term solution is still years away.

The new zero-tolerance policy appears to have been masterminded by Stephen Miller and other more extreme members of the Trump Administration. ‘Family separation’ seems to only be the first-volley of this policy with reports suggesting that military bases near the border are set to be transformed into massive detention centres.

Political realism

The fumbling approach to the family separation policy provides a rare insight into Trump’s decision-making process. The president has already established himself as a realist; he believes that people are driven by self-interest and values his own personal relationships over those with traditional allies.

For Trump, solidarity or honour are naïve notions at best and, at worst, exploited by other countries in order to free-ride on the US’ wealth, power and security.

This has been the explicit justification both for his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and his decision to impose tariffs on US allies. It is clear that he sees migrants and refugees in the same way, either as parasites taking advantage of the US hospitality, or simply as criminals. He has often berated countries like Germany for its laissez-faire attitude towards refugees and has asserted that this has led to a rise in crime rates despite there being no evidence of this.

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Anti-islamicisation posters in Germany (right) and Austria (left). Photo credit: Joe Barnes/Jericho

However Trump’s justification of ‘family-separation’ goes beyond this general cynicism and is more extreme than other anti-migrant policies in countries like Hungary or Italy. ‘Family Separation’ postulates that a certain level of discomfort and trauma must be inflicted in order for it to act as a deterrent to others thinking about making the same journey and that government agencies should go out of their way in order to inflict this discomfort despite the fact that this policy likely violates both the American Constitution and parts of Human Rights law.

It will be interesting to see if this punitive family separation strategy bleeds into other policy areas in the near future.

An opportunity for Democrats?

Despite Trump’s hard talk it is clear that the majority of the American public is against the idea of separating children and parents, one recent poll found only 27% in favour and 66% against the policy. However, many on the Right and extreme Right who have long argued that illegal migration on the southern border is a deliberate attempt to dilute American identity have supported the President and have been critical of the backlash against Trump.

Conservative Firebrand Ann Coulter described the children being taken away from their parents as ‘crisis actors’, a term originating in fringe conspiracy theories suggesting that the emotional scenes seen on TV are in truth faked to create political outrage.

Furthermore, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to defend the policy on moral and religious grounds has caused deep rifts within America’s large and powerful evangelical community who are obstinately committed to ‘family values’ but are also some of Trump’s biggest supporters.

While some evangelicals such as Franklin Graham have come out against Sessions (with a few even petitioning to have his Church chastise him), the silence or the support of the majority on the issue has been criticised as hypocritical by both liberals and moderates alike.

The family separation scandal highlights the problem the Trump administration has with matching his campaign promises with government policy as well as the large amount of influence extreme members of his administration like Stephen Miller seem to have over certain policy areas.

It is unclear if this specific scandal will have much bearing on the upcoming mid-term elections in November however it is clear that Trump has chosen immigration as one of his central campaigning issues. The Democrats have an opportunity to win over voters alienated by real-life effects of Trump’s extreme immigration policies before the mid-terms but they themselves must assuage fears and articulate alternative solutions to the issues of crime, drugs and immigration.

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