Witcover: Inhumane treatment of migrant children stokes revulsion across political spectrum

Americans alarmed about President Donald Trump's attacks on their basic democratic institutions need to look no further for evidence now than at the travesty occurring at southern ports of entry.

Numerous well-documented accounts of young immigrant children being separated from their alien parents at border locations are flooding television screens and newspaper columns across the country.

On Father's Day weekend, scores of members of Congress, mostly Democrats but some Republicans too, joined the chorus, flocking to government reception centers to see for themselves. The crisis has reached the point that the usually silent first lady Melania Trump and former first lady Laura Bush have joined the public pushback.

Mrs. Trump with obvious political caution observed through a spokeswoman that she "hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform. She believes we need to be a country that governs with heart."

One wonders whether she has said the same to her husband, who took the occasion to blame his rival Democrats for leaving on the books an old law on family immigration policy ignored by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway chimed in on NBC News: "If they don't like the law, they should change it."

Mrs. Bush from a safe retirement perch was more direct: "I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international borders, but this zero-tolerance policy (on undocumented entry by children) is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart."

She compared the federal border retention facilities to the camps established during World War II where Japanese-American citizens were interned out of unwarranted fear of disloyalty, which she rightly dubbed "one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history."

The condemnations have crossed party lines, with Franklin Graham, the pro-Trump evangelist son of the late Billy Graham, calling the policy "disgraceful." Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California charged that the Trump administration was using "the grief, the tears, the pain of these kids as mortar to build the wall" the president demands be constructed across the border with Mexico.

The controversy has reignited the Democratic effort to restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that gives relief to some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Mr. Trump once declared his support for the program, but he has long since abandoned it, blaming the opposition party as he strives for tougher immigration enforcement.

His administration's zero-tolerance policy toward children accompanying parents seeking political asylum in the United States is strongly embraced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, despite his personal falling out with Mr. Trump. The flood of critical eyewitness stories about the harshness and insensitivity of the policy has handed the Democrats a politically exploitable issue, as they look to the November congressional elections to wrest control of the House, and even of the Senate, from what is now clearly the party of Mr. Trump.

Wide and sympathetic press and television coverage of the conditions at the federal reception facilities in southern border areas and elsewhere in the country has thrown the president on the defensive, temporarily, as he basks in the positive glow of his Singapore summit with North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un.

But the Democrats have yet to recover from Mr. Trump's 2016 election that shattered them after eight years of the Obama presidency, leaving them essentially leaderless. The resumed fight over DACA, enlarged now to include the particular plight of the very young new arrivals, may bring about the emergence of new leadership, but there are no signs of it yet.

A natural and obvious figure as a blue-collar icon is former Vice President Joe Biden, who at age 75 remains indecisive about running again. Otherwise, the party bench of possible 2020 presidential nominees as of now is thin, as those mid-term elections loom more than anything else as a referendum on Donald Trump.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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