In this world of woe, it may have been the most inspiring news story of the last few days. An immigrant from Mali, in France with dubious papers, clambered up four stories of a Parisian building in defiance of gravity to rescue a small child who was dangling from a balcony.
Despite anti-immigrant feelings in France, President Emmanuel Macron granted the unlikely hero (now dubbed “Spider-Man”) legal residency and a quick path to citizenship. He also received a presidential recommendation for a job with the Paris fire department.
Imagine if an immigrant who had crossed the border illegally had pulled off a similar rescue in Donald Trump’s America.
Before the applause from bystanders had died down, the American version of a real-life Spider-Man would have been arrested by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Instead of arranging a visit to the White House, Trump would probably have tweeted that the FAKE HERO was a dangerous criminal who had learned how to scale buildings during a long career as an armed robber.
Does anyone think this is an exaggeration?
Trump began his demagogic presidential campaign by fulminating against Mexican rapists supposedly pouring over the border. He has hyperbolically elevated a Latino gang, MS-13, to the greatest threat since al-Qaida.
And with henchpeople like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, the president has presided over the most hard-hearted set of nativist policies since Franklin Roosevelt rounded up Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Pride and prejudice
There have been so many attacks on immigrants — even those with protected status under Barack Obama — that they have become lost in the tempest of Trump tantrums.
The Dreamers, who were brought to this country without papers as children, lost a chance at legal protections when Trump torpedoed compromise legislation early this year by increasing his nonnegotiable demands at the last minute. Also, America is on target to admit the fewest number of humanitarian refugees from war and oppression since the program was enacted in 1980.
But a recent draconian policy change has cut through the blur to inspire the sustained outrage that it deserves. Early this month, Sessions in a series of speeches announced that anyone crossing the border illegally would be jailed and criminally prosecuted under U.S. law.
This means, in effect, that parents who are apprehended crossing the border would be immediately separated from their children. The reason: Children are not allowed in criminal jails.
What is chilling is that Sessions seemed proud of this inhumane policy. As the attorney general said, in words unlikely to be etched on the walls of the Justice Department, “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
“It’s not our fault” should be the mantra of an administration that blames everyone — except Vladimir Putin and investors in Trump hotels — for the president’s moral, ethical and policy failings.
Nielsen, who is clinging to her job by a thread, was similarly unapologetic as she said in recent congressional testimony, “If you’re a parent, or you’re a single person, or you happen to have a family, if you cross between the ports of entry, we will refer you for prosecution. You’ve broken U.S. law.”
Asked about this new policy by NPR, Kelly was particularly ham-handed in describing what would happen to families when parents are arrested: “The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
The two insensitive words “or whatever” deserve their own exhibit in the Trump Era’s Rhetorical Hall of Fame.
To be clear, nothing under the law forces ICE agents to rip children from the arms of their parents. Instead, this is a direct result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings. While precise numbers are not available, at least 700 children have been taken away from their parents in this heartless fashion.
Enraged by the rise of a shaky statistic (how many immigrants are apprehended at the border each month), Trump has convinced himself that wrenching apart families would serve as a disincentive to illegal crossings. As totalitarian societies and mob bosses have demonstrated through the ages, many things can serve as disincentives while still making everyone with civilized values recoil in horror.
Another aspect of the recent immigration debate illustrates the danger for liberals in going too far with under-researched anti-Trump talking points. Just as the child separation policy was getting well-deserved attention, Trump critics jumped on an unrelated statistic — the nearly 1,500 immigrant children supposedly lost by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Under long-standing policy, children arriving alone at the border are placed by HHS into foster care until their legal status can be resolved. A phone survey last year (without any effort to follow up in person) failed to ascertain the whereabouts of 1,475 unaccompanied children who had been placed with sponsoring families.
These children are missing only in the crudest nobody-responded-to-phone-calls sense. But alas, many Trump foes quickly conflated everything to reach the erroneous conclusion that the government had lost 1,500 children taken from their parents at the border.
The real Trump policy of forced family separation is cruel enough. And like Abu Ghraib dramatically symbolized the government’s widespread use of torture after 9/11, the latest Trump make-them-suffer tactic may belatedly arouse the nation’s conscience.
Or, sadly, we may learn yet again that America’s conscience fled our shores in shame on Election Night 2016.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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