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Motherhood and the Morality of Trump’s Immigration Policy

Why conservative women are criticizing the breakup of migrant families

John Moore/Getty Images

Laura Bush, the former first lady, has never been particularly outspoken. So the political world took notice on Sunday when she expressed her displeasure at the Trump administration’s immigration policy. The separation of migrant children from their parents and guardians, she wrote in The Washington Post, “breaks her heart.” “Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, on being the nation that sends humanitarian relief to places devastated by natural disasters or famine or war,” she continued. “We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents—and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.”

Bush is one of a growing number of prominent Republican women to criticize the administration’s policy, which has caused the separation of thousands of children in recent weeks and may result in as many as 30,000 detained children by August.

“As a mother, as a Catholic, as someone with a conscience … I will tell you that nobody likes this policy,” Kellyanne Conway told NBC News’ Chuck Todd on Sunday. Trump’s policy “is traumatizing to the children,” said Maine Senator Susan Collins. “Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families,” Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said on Sunday. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.” And conservative commentator S.E. Cupp tweeted a photo of her children on Saturday, writing, “I’m lucky. I got to hold this nugget in my arms. I still get to. Imagine you’re a mommy who can’t, because of this awful Trump policy at the border that rips children away from their families. THIS MUST STOP.”

One could dismiss some of these women as hypocrites. Bush’s op-ed, for instance, excludes the fact that it was her husband, George W. Bush, who created Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Collins opposes a Democratic bill that would end the separation policy. Conway has yet to resign her position. But there’s another troubling facet to their rhetoric. With the exception of Collins, these women either explicitly or implicitly invoked their motherhood, as though this bestows a particular moral authority on them. Bush noted that her late mother-in-law, Barbara, once “picked up a fussy, dying baby named Donovan and snuggled him against her shoulder to soothe him” during the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

Motherhood no doubt gives a person a certain perspective on Trump’s separation policy. But everyone has been a child, and thus can imagine—or perhaps know firsthand—the trauma of being separated from a parent. When judging Trump’s policies, personhood grants all the moral authority that anyone needs.

The motherhood line serves another, older purpose: These tweets and op-eds and statements are also venerations of the nuclear family. They argue for the preservation of a specific social order, not for more equitable immigration laws. The role of the mother has long been one of the few positions of authority that conservatives have opened to women. But that authority is limited by default. For social conservatives in particular, the role of the mother is not one that women should be able to freely accept or reject; their abortion policies would force women into motherhood.

For this and for other reasons, an outbreak of concerned motherhood from conservatives does not necessarily constitute serious bipartisan opposition to Trump’s policy. A rush for allies in this debate—Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California thanked her on Twitter for the piece—may well obfuscate the GOP’s true extremism on immigration. There’s no reason to hope that Conway will, as a mother or a Catholic, persuade her boss to change his mind. She’s had plenty of time to do that already.

Media outlets can publish all the Trump critics they want. Producers can put them on TV. Editors can give them jobs as columnists and commentators. But the Republican Party is still firmly the party of Trump, and this is the case because of his anti-immigrant crusade, not in spite of it. His influence is most evident in polls of immigration sentiment among Republican voters. According to a new poll conducted by The Daily Beast in conjunction with Ipsos, 46 percent of Republican voters approve of the family separation policy. Trump launched his campaign with a promise to build a border wall and while most Americans oppose the idea, a CBS News poll released in March says that 77 percent of Republicans support it. Meanwhile, Trump’s approval ratings are higher than they’ve been at any other point in his presidency.

The Republican Party is an anti-immigrant party. It has fully embraced Trump’s agenda. The depth to which the GOP has taken up the cause of immigration restriction is evident in Collins’s dithering; it’s clear also in a Monday statement released by moderate Republican Senator Ben Sasse. Family separation is “wicked,” he admitted, but he also called it “a bad new policy” that “is a reaction against a bad old policy.” It all started with “the stupidity of catch-and-release,” he said, referring to the policy of releasing migrants who have claimed asylum until their court hearing. How much reform can be expected from a party committed to the idea that immigration is a threat?

The Trump administration might eventually unite these separated families. Maybe it will even get kids out of detention cages into homes, where they can sleep in beds with real blankets instead of foil sheets. But what happens after that? A concentration camp is still a concentration camp, even if families get to share the same tent. Restrictive, excessively punitive immigration laws are still in place. ICE still exists. The administration will still send asylum-seekers back to face violence and death in their home countries. One need not be a mother, or a father, to understand why that must change.