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Weaponizing Children

The president is wielding parental love and fear for political gain.

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

In 1977, the public school system of Tyler, Texas, a small city 100 miles southeast of Dallas, began expelling students who couldn’t prove they were in the United States legally. The state had passed a law cutting off educational funding for undocumented children, and for Lidia and José Lopez, migrants from Mexico, it meant that their children had to leave their local public school. To reenroll them, they were told they’d have to pay a fee of $1,000 per child, more than the family could afford from their jobs harvesting roses for Tyler’s flower nurseries.

The Lopez family, and three other undocumented families, sued the district, as well as its superintendent, James Plyler. (Worried they’d be deported, the Lopezes showed up to their first hearing in a car packed with their possessions.) Five years later, the suit reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that the states could not deny undocumented children the right to a free public education. In the majority decision, Justice William Brennan wrote that the Texas law punished children for actions taken by their parents. This, he said, did not “comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”

Maximum time Customs and Border Patrol can legally detain children at the border:

72 hours

Date of Trump’s new policy separating children from their parents:

May 7

Number of children in government shelters in May 2018:

+ 22 percent since April

Sources: the ACLU; HHS

Those conceptions no longer seem to hold under President Donald Trump. Although nearly every statute, state and federal guideline, and Supreme Court decision written in the last half-century has made the well-being of children the default position, the president has largely ignored history and convention, even as it relates to the most vulnerable and valuable resource in society. In late May, his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, testifying before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said it was a “school decision ... a local community decision” to report undocumented children to Immigration and Customs Enforcement—in direct violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler, which has stood for four decades.

“Back in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was in office—not exactly a time of government largesse—we still drew certain lines,” said Clare Huntington, a professor of family and poverty law at Fordham University. “There was an understanding at the time that certain things were off the table.” No longer. This is more than a vague erosion of “norms.” It’s a consistent tactic within the administration. Donald Trump, perhaps more than any other president in modern American history, has made children fair game.

Over the past year, Trump has ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed some undocumented residents brought to the country as children to work. He has made the separation of parents from their children official government policy, taking some 700 children from their relatives since last October. And in a dramatic break from precedent, his administration has said that it is implementing a new policy: fingerprinting all sponsors who step forward to shelter unaccompanied minors and collecting information about their legal status—a change that, immigrant advocates say, will discourage parents and other relatives from collecting their children, for fear of being deported themselves.

Each time, Trump either used these tactics to pander to his base or to strong-arm congressional Democrats into acceding to his other policy priorities, such as securing funding to build a border wall. “Unlike prior administrations, the Trump administration seems perfectly willing to use immigrant children as negotiating pawns, no matter how much harm it does to the children,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Even babies are not off-limits.”

It’s not just immigrant children. The Republican-led Congress, which has acquiesced to Trump on matters large and small, allowed funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which serves nine million low- and moderate-income children, to lapse for an unprecedented four months, using it as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations with Democrats. In a sop to big business, the administration has proposed loosening Depression-era regulations aimed at limiting the amount of time 16- and 17-year-olds can spend doing hazardous work, such as mining, roofing, or operating a chain saw. House Republicans have also proposed a bill that would restrict funding and tighten eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, even though nearly half of the program’s recipients are children.

Trump isn’t the first president to enact policies that harm children. In 1971, Richard Nixon vetoed a bipartisan bill establishing universal childcare. Nineteen years later, George H.W. Bush did the same for legislation that would have ensured parents could take twelve weeks of unpaid family leave and still return to their jobs. But, it can be argued, in these instances children were the victims of ideology, inaction, or unintended consequences. Nixon thought universal childcare was communist. Bush opposed putting mandates on businesses. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it helps explain why this White House is so different—and dangerous. Trump, unlike his predecessors, has enacted policies that inflict harm proactively, not passively.

It’s not hard to imagine a world in which the GOP will follow his lead. Nearly two years into Trump’s administration, Republican candidates have already aired some 14,000 TV ads echoing his hard-line stance on immigration; it is the single biggest issue Republicans are campaigning on in the midterms—an about-face from 2014, when immigration wasn’t even in the top ten.

It’s possible, too, that the public may react to the stories about immigrant children jailed in detention centers along the border and demand action. In May, The New York Times reported that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen had considered resigning after she disagreed with the president’s stance on family separation. Whether or not this is a sign that some members of the Trump administration might, despite all the evidence to the contrary, push back against the terrorizing of children, is unclear. More likely, it will be up to the American public to right these wrongs.