(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When President Donald Trump uses federal funds to provide regular cash infusions to his failing businesses, or directs government benefits to people who flatter him and pay him money, his corruption is grotesque. But it’s not inhumane.
By contrast, the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant parents from their children, including infants, some of whom were lost for months or more, was always intended to be brutal. Anyone who has had a child, or been a child, intuitively understands how depraved the policy was. Experts predict that victims will suffer trauma and repercussions for the remainder of their lives. Yet the officials who approved and executed this policy seem unlikely to suffer legal consequences.
Last week the New York Times reported on an 86-page draft report by the inspector general of the Department of Justice. According to the Times, the report concludes that the child separation policy was aggressively pushed at the highest level of the Justice Department as well as at the Department of Homeland Security. The idea was to make detention a living hell for migrants, including those seeking asylum from violence, so that the horrors they — and especially their children — endured would serve as a deterrent to others seeking refuge.
“We need to take away children,” the Times quotes then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions telling prosecutors, one of whom took this note in shorthand: “If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.” The story notes that Rod J. Rosenstein, then deputy attorney general, later told prosecutors that it did not matter how young the children were.
The dulling of moral sensibility is both a byproduct of assaults on decency and a predicate for more egregious attacks. Yet administration officials were sufficiently aware of the horrors they were inflicting to deny their existence. In June 2018, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
Nielsen had reason to lie, just as Sessions and Rosenstein had cause to obscure the extent of their involvement. Apparatchiks prefer not to look like moral monsters.
“The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” said then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in 2018. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California’s Law School in Berkeley, told me: “There is no doubt that the policy is illegal under international law.” The American Academy of Pediatrics called it “inhumane.” After evaluating 17 adults and 9 children subjected to the policy, Physicians for Human Rights concluded that it “rises to the level of torture.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a civil suit against an array of administration malefactors, including Sessions and Nielsen. Rosenstein, now a partner at King & Spalding, a large corporate law firm, was not named in the suit. Perhaps everyone involved assumes that the expanding rubble of the Trump administration will obscure individual responsibility. Administration policy on Covid-19 has led to the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. Is the systematic brutalization of a few thousand migrant families really so bad compared with that?
Since April 2018, when the child-separation policy was revealed, I have periodically asked immigration activists and lawyers when, and how, the perpetrators of this policy might be held accountable. But activists and private lawyers do not prosecute wrongdoing, and government officials enjoy qualified immunity. While federal prosecutors have brought charges against numerous Trump associates, including Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, his 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort, and his longtime political adviser Roger Stone, administration officials have not been similarly targeted.
“Other than congressional hearings and shaming, or occasional talk of a post-Trump truth commission, I’m not sure these officials will ever get their due,” said immigration advocate Frank Sharry.
In effect, federal officials can abuse children right up to and perhaps beyond the point of torture, damaging them for life, so long as they do so in the course of carrying out federal policy. To date, no prosecutor has seen fit to challenge that dystopian reality. If you want to know how low America has sunk, there’s your marker.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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