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By separating immigrant children from their parents, Trump has taken the “nightmare” of the immigration system under his predecessors and “put it into overdrive,” says professor and author César García Hernández

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

President Trump is standing by his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.

DONALD TRUMP: The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. It won’t be. You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places, we can’t allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch.

AARON MATE: The number of children separated from their parents has escalated in recent months, topping more than 2000 since mid-April. The White House has made clear it sees this as an act of deterrence. If children are taken away from their parents, then that will convince migrant families to not take the risk. This is Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking to Fox News.

FOX NEWS REPORTER: Is this policy in part used as a deterrent? Are you trying to deter people from bringing children or minors across this dangerous journey? Is that part of what the separation is about?

JEFF SESSIONS: Fundamentally, we are enforcing the law. If you break into the country in an unlawful-.

FOX NEWS REPORTER: Is it a deterrent, sir? Are you considering this a deterrent?

JEFF SESSIONS: I see the fact that no one was being prosecuted for this as a factor in a fivefold increase in four years in this kind of illegal immigration. So yes, hopefully people will get the message and come through the border at the port of entry, and not break, break across the border unlawfully.

AARON MATE: Now, while the separation of immigrant families is Trump’s policy, that does not mean he is the first president with a harsh policy on immigrant families. Trump is only intensifying the criminalization of immigrants that began long before him, including under his predecessors Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Joining me is Cesar Garcia Hernandez, associate professor of law at the University of Denver, and publisher of the blog Welcome, professor. If we could start with what is new here under President Trump. Certainly not the detention of immigrant families, and also separation has happened before, but how has Trump intensified the separation?

CESAR HERNANDEZ: Well, thank you, Aaron. It’s a pleasure to be with you. I think one of the innovations that we’ve seen in the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies recently in the last few months is the wholesale embrace of a policy that appears to have little concern for the human cost of policing immigration law, no matter what the toll is on children, on parents, on families, on their core values that are part of the U.S. legal tradition, and in fact what makes the U.S., the U.S. since the end of World War II, the standard bearer for the human rights tradition among Western nations. Their concern is to bring a heavy hand to immigration law enforcement, seemingly without limits.

AARON MATE: And let’s talk about how we got here. Many Democrats are voicing outrage about this Trump policy. You had all the current-living first ladies, both Democrats and Republicans, weighing in with protests about the separation policy. But how, in your view, did even Democrats lay the groundwork for what Trump is doing now?

CESAR HERNANDEZ: Well, I think it’s right to criticize the Trump administration’s family separation policy, but I think it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that the Obama administration and the Bush administration, before President Trump, preceded the family separation policy with the policy of detaining families, and detaining women, mothers, alongside their children locked up behind barbed wire. That, to me, sounds like a nightmare. I am in the privileged position of being nowhere near experiencing that kind of trauma, but it certainly sounds like a nightmare to me. And I’m not interested in weighing one nightmare against another nightmare.

But then the fact of the matter is that the Bush administration and President Obama strongly, both strongly supported detaining families, and in fact, the Obama administration built the family detention network that is still operating to this very day.

AARON MATE: So let’s go back to the 1990s, even before Bush, to Bill Clinton, because he oversaw some harsh laws on immigration. I want to play a clip of him speaking in his 1995 State of the Union speech.

BILL CLINTON: All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.

AARON MATE: So that was Bill Clinton speaking in 1995, and the following year he signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which did as he promised there in that speech, radically increasing so-called border enforcement, and also intensifying the criminalization of immigrant-related offenses. Professor, can you talk about how this infrastructure that Clinton laid, especially when it comes to criminalizing immigration offenses, drastically increasing the number of people who could be-. Drastically increasing the number of people who could be arrested, charged, and deported, led to what we’re seeing today.

CESAR HERNANDEZ: Now, President Clinton, who presided over a series of reforms to immigration law that expanded the number of people who could be detained, in fact the number of people who had to be detained by what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the predecessor to today’s ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement Agency, and likewise presided over an expanse in the number of people who could be deported for a host of criminal activities, but also for engaging in immigration law violations that were unrelated to criminal activity.

And, and most importantly, though, I think the way in which the president spoke about migrants as being a burden on the United States. And once we frame migrants as a burden, then it makes, it only makes sense to try to limit migration, try to control migrants, try to police migrants. And that’s in fact what’s happened in every administration since President Clinton’s time in office.

AARON MATE: Obama, who oversaw more deportations than all the presidents of the 20th century combined. On that front I want to go to a clip of Janet Murguia. She was the president in 2014 of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino advocacy organization. She called Obama, very famously, the deporter in chief.

JANET MURGUIA: This president has been the deporter in chief. Any day now, any day now, this administration will reach the 2 million mark for deportations. It’s a staggering number that far outstrips any of his predecessors, and leaves behind a wake of devastation for families across America.

AARON MATE: Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza speaking in 2014. What do you think was the political calculation here behind Clinton and Obama’s immigration policies? Did they see it as necessary to basically sacrifice immigrant communities for the sake of winning over voters who they thought, who they calculated wanted tough immigration laws?

CESAR HERNANDEZ: I think that was part of their calculation at the beginning of their terms in office, in particular talking about the Obama administration when they were hoping to convince some some Republican members of Congress to go along with a comprehensive immigration reform proposal. But by the end of their time in office, six years in, say, it was quite clear to everyone that that wasn’t going to happen. That Republicans had absolutely no interest in coming to the negotiating table in any meaningful way. And so, and yet they continued not only deporting record numbers of people but also detaining record numbers of people. The Obama administration presided over the largest immigration detention system in the nation’s history, and that’s often overlooked.

And so I think the only the only explanation that I can come to is that they believed it. They believe that this was the best way of doing it or that they were at least incapable of stopping it. And if we believe John Sandweg, who was for a time the head of ICE under under President Obama, he referred to the number of people that ICE detained under, under his watch, under his leadership, as being beyond control, that they could not limit how many people they had in their custody. So that suggests that the system is just operating on autopilot. And that is rather frightening, because what we’re talking about is human lives that are locked up, and billions and billions worth of dollars that we’re spending every year to make that happen.

AARON MATE: So in terms of continuity, you talked about Obama presiding over the largest expansion of family detention. So then is it fair to say that a major difference between Trump and Obama is not that they are detaining less families, but only that now under Trump instead of keeping the families together in these family detention facilities that they’re separating the families? And also, when it comes to the issue of deterrence, we heard Jeff Sessions talk about before that they see this this policy of separation as a deterrence. But is that not, is that not also the rationale used under Clinton and also Obama as well, that these harsh family detention policies, border enforcement, were also going to be a deterrent to migrants fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries?

CESAR HERNANDEZ: As with so much of the Trump administration’s immigration policies they’ve taken that nightmare that migrants lived under President Obama and thrown it into overdrive. And so, so they haven’t in any way substituted the family separation for family detention, they simply added onto family detention system the family separation. And has done so by borrowing the very same justification that Obama administration’s top officials used to to rationalize family detention.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jay Johnson told Congress that the reason that they need to detain families was that it could deter other families from coming to the United States. Lawyers for the federal government who went into courtrooms were making similar arguments until federal courts slapped him down and said actually, that’s not a legal basis for detaining this individual, to hope that you may convince some other individual not to come. And so the Obama administration eventually changed its legal rationale, but they never shifted their policy, their policy objectives or what they were accomplishing when it came to detaining mothers and children behind barbed wire.

AARON MATE: All right, we’ll leave it there. And of course we’ll continue to cover the Trump administration’s family separation policy in the coming days. We wanted to start with a look at how we got here. And Professor Cesar Hernandez, thank you for providing us with that. Cesar Garcia Hernandez, associate professor of law at the University of Denver, publisher of the blog Crimmigration, thank you.


AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Aaron Maté is a former host/producer for The Real News and a contributor to the Nation. He has previously reported and produced for Democracy Now!, Vice, and Al Jazeera, and written for the Toronto Star, the Intercept, and Le Monde Diplomatique.