Ezekiel Agonistes

Family separation at the border reminds us children still suffer too often the iniquities of their elders

There are two cruelties in heavy play regarding the family separation issue currently bedeviling our politics and our press, and it becomes difficult at times to determine which one reflects worse from one to another moment. If it's immoral and cruel to separate children from their parents, even on behalf of enforcing such immigration law as we have, what should we call it regarding those entering the United States unlawfully who use children not their own to do it?

No decent man or woman should have to think twice against genuine family separation, even in the presence of those among us who believe the law sacrosanct enough that the most grotesque human abuse is just. "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father," said the prophet Ezekiel, "neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son." We bear that in mind, too, when learning as we do that many are the children who migrate upward from their troubled Central and South American and other roots without their families.

Discovering once upon a time that Middle Eastern and other terrorists used women and children as human shields was a horror equal to what we might feel upon discovering there are those who live for cruelty and immorality now using children as human shields to enter a country against its laws, for purposes we dare only surmise and not actualise.

No administration would have a simple time knowing children in family tow from children on their own for one or another reason, or from children turned to human shields, beyond the point that all those children are victims to one or another degree. We can't tell one from the other with the naked eye when shown the numerous photographs we've been shown of children alone in detention camps.

George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin writes at The Volokh Conspiracy that the Trump administration leans on a misinterpretation of the 1997 Flores case, the settlement in which actually doesn't require family separation but does require the least restrictive setting for children and their release to their families without needless delay. "Detaining children under harsh conditions, separated from their parents," he continues, "is pretty obviously not 'the least restrictive setting' possible, and it most definitely doesn't qualify as treating children with 'dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability'," as the settlement further requires.

Somin says the administration could very well address the law enforcement side of the matter "by supporting legislation banning family separation at the border, except in cases of child abuse or similar exigency." Somin points to a Democratic-sponsored bill banning just that which may well have Republican support, considering a swelling number of Republicans who are against family separation and also mindful of how it might injure them in the fall elections.

The problem there, Somin continues, is that the president seems to want the separated children as "leverage to extract concessions from Congress on other immigration issues. He literally wants to hold the children as political hostages in order to push through his agenda of drastically reducing legal immigration, as well as illegal."

That is terrible enough without thinking about a source of even that problem, as Reason's editor-at-large Nick Gillespie observes. "The problem is with Congress," he writes, "and it's always worth remembering that Donald Trump is not the cause but the effect of the decline in the ability and willingness of Congress to actually do its job in the 21st century. Its main job is to write and pass legislation, especially on major federal issues, but it has mostly abdicated that responsibility for decades now and nowhere is this more true than in the case of immigration reform."

Thus was Barack Obama so prolific a deporter that he could and did deport more people by 2016 than all presidents who held the office between 1892 and 2000. One or two of the earliest images now making rounds showing separated foreign children in detention caging turn out to have been taken two years before Obama's second term expired. Presidential nefarity is remarkably nonpartisan, from Franklin Roosevelt rejecting port for ships carrying refugees from Hitler's camps to Gerald Ford dismissing the exiled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as just another writer trying to sell a book.

The reminder that those who break the law must bear the consequences often comes from those who remind you that convicted and imprisoned criminals are separated from their children. But the children of convicted criminals have the solace of staying with another parent or other relations their families accept, not in their own cages. Somin observes accurately enough by comparison that if the government began putting traffic scofflaws in pre-trial detention while concurrently caging their children separately it would provoke a comparable outcry.

We are left now to the metastasising imagery of caged foreign children attracting those whose rhetoric is as extreme as the government's inability to remind itself of Ezekiel's admonition.