Melania Trump flew to Texas on Thursday to meet migrant children who had been separated from their parents, and perhaps also to save face for the White House—to show that her husband, who ultimately is responsible for the children’s separation, does care about their fate. “I’d also like to ask you how I can help these children to reunite with their families as quickly as possible,” she told staff at the Upbring New Hope Children’s Center. To the kids themselves, she said, “Good luck.”
Later, though, The Daily Mail revealed that while boarding her flight to Texas, Trump had worn a military-style jacket with the words “I Don’t Care, Do U?” printed on the back. What did she mean by the jacket? “It’s a jacket,” her spokeswoman told reporters. “There was no hidden message.” President Donald Trump insisted there was one, tweeting that it “refers to the Fake News Media. Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”
Which is to say, if the Texas trip was meant to humanize the Trumps and the administration’s policies, it failed. The first lady turned a humanitarian visit into a spectacle about herself, and in doing so, she put the lie to the purpose of her trip.
Trump’s immigration policy remains as ugly as ever, despite his latest efforts to prove otherwise. On Wednesday, he signed an executive order that ends family separation at the border, and on Thursday a Customs and Border Patrol official told The Washington Post that the government would cease its “zero-tolerance policy” of prosecuting all adult migrants who are caught after crossing the border illegally, and instead would only prosecute adults without children. But a Department of Justice official immediately disputed the CBP official’s claim, saying “zero tolerance policy is still in effect.” And later on Thursday, a Pentagon official said that 20,000 migrant children will be housed on military bases starting as early as July.
Amid this chaos and confusion, it’s nonetheless clear that while families might not be separated anymore, they will be detained together indefinitely. (It takes hundreds of days to adjudicate immigration cases.) It’s also clear there’s no government plan in place to reunite the 2,300 children separated from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy since early May. (For some children, it may come down to whether they managed to remember a phone number.) For all of Trump’s efforts to quell the outrage this week, the inhumanity of his restrictionist immigration policy remains very much intact.
Migration across the southern border has risen for four straight months. There could be as many as 30,000 migrant children in government custody by August, according to an administration official. There will be more camps—“tent cities”—on military bases and elsewhere, and many will be occupied by children who either crossed the border alone or who were separated from their parents by CBP. If indeed the administration is no longer prosecuting migrant adults who came with children, then they will need camps or other detention facilities for families, too. (The Pentagon said the military bases will house unaccompanied children, but it’s unclear where parents with families will be kept.)
What dangers will these children be exposed to over the many months they’re destined to live in these places? On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that immigrant minors jailed in a juvenile detention facility near Staunton, Virginia, filed a lawsuit alleging persistent abuse from guards. The article’s description of the allegations recalls Abu Ghraib: “Multiple detainees say the guards stripped them of their clothes and strapped them to chairs with bags placed over their heads.” The abuses reportedly began under the Obama administration, but some teenagers had been put into the facility because Trump’s CBP believed they were members of MS-13, an assertion that both the teens and the facility’s staff dispute.
In other facilities, children have begun to harm themselves. Some have attempted suicide. Children incarcerated in the Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas say they have been forcibly injected with strong psychotropic drugs. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the children charges that the Office of Refugee Resettlement uses the drugs as “chemical strait jackets.” If the camps become semi-permanent fixtures, as seems likely, it’s possible to think of them as refugee camps: institutions forced on people who cannot return home without facing violence and who have been forbidden from going nearly anywhere else. The camps are certain to traumatize many migrants.
What comes next for these migrants, and for America’s immigration policy overall? It’s likely that not even Trump knows.
He has little room to maneuver politically. His administration had insisted for weeks that it wasn’t separating families at the border, and then it was proven otherwise. It’s difficult to deny family separation when audio of screaming migrant children goes viral. But Trump entered the Republican primary with the cogent political goal of immigration restriction, and his actions as president prove he feels particularly bound to the promises he made—a border wall, a Muslim ban, mass deportations.
Politico reported on Monday that Stephen Miller, a senior White House policy adviser, and other top aides “are planning additional crackdowns on immigration before the November midterms, despite a growing backlash over the administration’s move to separate migrant children from parents at the border…. The goal for Miller and his team is to arm Trump with enough data and statistics by early September to show voters that he fulfilled his immigration promises—even without a border wall or any other congressional measure, said one Republican close to the White House.”
That effort might seem imperiled after Trump’s retreat later in the week, amid growing criticism of Miller from Republicans. But Miller believes the zero-tolerance policy makes good political sense for Trump, in that it energizes his base. He might be right: A majority of Republican voters supported the family separation policy. Trump is loyal to these voters, and them alone. It explains why, this week’s executive order notwithstanding, he hasn’t budged one bit on his broader immigration stance.
“We shouldn’t be hiring immigration judges by the thousands, as our ridiculous immigration laws demand,” he tweeted on Thursday. “We should be changing our laws, building the Wall, hire border agents and Ice and not let people come into our country based on the legal phrase they are told to say as their password.” On Friday morning, he was at it again: “We must maintain a Strong Southern Border. We cannot allow our Country to be overrun by illegal immigrants as the Democrats tell their phony stories of sadness and grief, hoping it will help them in the elections.”
Note the word “phony.” Trump does not believe his immigration policies have caused any sadness or grief—at least not to innocent people. He believes, sincerely, that immigrants are dangerous, that even their children are threats, and so the means justify his nativist ends. Grief is the point, which is why he will cause unimaginable misery for the migrants who are already here and for those who are still to come.