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This is no way to treat children, period

It requires a certain contempt for basic human rights to threaten families seeking to cross the border into the United States, whether they are seeking refugee status or simply looking for work, by promising to take their children from them. But this weekend President Donald Trump took his own administration’s approach to immigration politics to a new level of cynicism and moral bankruptcy by announcing that he, too, regarded the practice as “horrible” and claimed it was all the fault of the Democrats.

“Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there parents once they cross the Border into the U.S. Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain must also go with it and we MUST continue building the WALL!” President Trump tweeted Saturday.

Make no mistake, this horrifying practice was begun by Attorney General Jeff Sessions who announced earlier this month a “zero tolerance” policy toward those who attempt to cross the southern border illegally. That means criminal penalties will be imposed on anyone who is caught and, as a result, children will be put in custody of federal authorities and not kept with their parents. Why the new policy? Was it meant to make children safer? Absolutely not. It is meant to be a deterrant, to frighten families — including, presumably, those legally seeking asylum in the U.S. — from trying to enter the country without authorization.

“If you don’t want you child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Mr. Sessions has said.

No matter how one feels about border security — whether you are in the camp that would build a wall or you find the whole thing overblown and bigoted — threatening to take kids hostage in this manner is simply beyond the pale for any civilized nation. And Mr. Trump seems to know it. That’s why he’s doing what he often does instinctively whenever caught crossing a line — he blames it on his critics, whether they are Democrats or merely the news media. Zero tolerance is his administration’s invention, nobody else’s. It’s the equivalent of a felon complaining that his actions are the fault of police who failed to stop him — or, in this case, the failure of Congressional Democrats to accede to his demands on immigration policy.

Still, there has been some confusion. Some recent reports of 1,475 “lost” migrant children failed to fully explain that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is not in touch with a high percentage of them because their families are likely resisting government contact because they, too, are undocumented. The follow-up survey was a product of concerns raised during the Barack Obama administration that unaccompanied minors might end up in the hands of human traffickers. Meanwhile, photographs used by some on social media to illustrate the heinousness of taking children away from their parents — kids warehoused in cage-like conditions — were not recent images but taken in 2014 (when Mr. Obama was president) by the Arizona Republic newspaper.

Naturally, President Trump saw another opportunity to go on the attack, tweeting early Tuesday morning that the photographs were all the fault of Democrats who were trying to make “us” look bad. Curiously, this one probably veered unusually close to the truth for this particular president. The posters no doubt wanted to make him look bad. And they’ve unwittingly given him cover if Americans think the whole debate is politics as usual when it should be about a heinous policy that Mr. Trump could reverse in a matter of minutes — if he wanted to do so.

The president may have no choice. It’s not clear that HHS has the capacity to handle a major increase in child placement. It’s not just that more children will be taken away from their parents at the border but it’s also that they will likely be under government care longer. If convicted under the zero tolerance policy, immigrants could be held in prison for a considerable length of time (even for first-offenders, there’s a possible six-month sentence; repeat offenders can face two years). That’s a formula for disaster for young people whose only guilt is to be born in difficult circumstances in places like Honduras, one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. The U.S. simply can’t continue down this awful road — and Mr. Trump can’t keep deflecting criticism over it forever.

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