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Trump tried to blur responsibility for his family separation policy in final debate

WASHINGTON – President Trump has never been known to apologize or regret, but when his policy of separating children from their families on the southwest border arose during his debate with the former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. Thursday, he had a hijacking loan for the “children in a cage” charge.

It was Mr. Biden’s fault.

“They said, ‘Look at these cages; President Trump built them, ”Mr. Trump said. “And then it was determined that they were built in 2014. That was him.

Mr Trump is right that the Obama administration expanded the number of border facilities with chain fences in 2014, but the journey since their construction to deal with a wave of Central American children crossing the border to ‘Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of families has not been captured by the president’s escapes. Nor is this explained by the slogan “children in a cage” often thrown by opponents of Mr. Trump.

“That’s one of the final sentences, but I don’t think the slogans will ever get you closer to why this disaster happened in the first place,” said Cristobal Ramón, senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. , about the “children in cages” catchall. “You have to go beyond the slogans.”

The Obama administration has only separated children from adults at the border in cases where there was doubt about the family relationship between a child and an accompanying adult or if the adult had a serious criminal record.

Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was a deliberate act of family separation, intended to deter migrants from trying to enter the United States. He ordered prosecutors to initiate criminal proceedings against anyone who crossed the border without permission, including parents, who were later separated from their children when taken into custody.

This policy ended in an international outcry, but its repercussions remain. Court documents filed this week show 545 children still have not been reunited with their parents after the Trump administration refused to share information with a panel of court-appointed lawyers and advocacy groups tasked with finding their guardians.

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But as with many of Mr. Trump’s prevarications, there was a nugget of truth in his claims Thursday night. The detention of migrant children in chained enclosures predated its administration.

Traditionally, migrants who initially crossed the border were detained by border patrol at stations designed for the short stay of a specific population: unmarried Mexican adults who could be quickly returned to Mexico. In 2014, the demographics at the border changed dramatically, towards Central American families and unaccompanied children who surrendered to officers in the hope of securing protection in the United States.

A law designed to protect migrant children, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, prevented the U.S. government from swiftly turning down such families, since they had not traveled from a neighboring country. Families, who fled poverty, torture, and persecution, were instead crammed into stations, prompting officers to crowd them into adjacent concrete exit ports – mostly large garages – in the sweltering heat. .

“I went back to Washington and said you had a humanitarian catastrophe ahead of you,” said Gil Kerlikowske, former US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, recalling his message to the Obama administration after a visit to installations in 2014.

The Obama administration then converted a warehouse in McAllen, Texas, into a facility that can accommodate more than 1,000 inmates. This facility, with chain fences installed to separate adult males from mothers and children, would later be known as the central processing center.

“They put in place what we thought was a temporary structure” that would be better for families and children, said Ronald D. Vitiello, former deputy head of the Obama administration’s border patrol and former acting director of Immigration and Customs under Mr. Trump. “In a non-technical sense, are these cages? I guess you could call them that.

The design, he said, was “to be open so you can see side to side of the facility to protect those in it.”

But opportunism led to cruelty. Mr Trump claimed on Thursday that the migrants were “so well taken care of,” but in reality his own policies fueled overcrowding at detention facilities.

After drawing widespread condemnation from lawmakers on both sides, immigration activists and the United Nations, Mr. Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 that largely ended the policy of family separation .

But the president’s anti-immigration message helped fuel a new wave of Central American families seeking refuge at the border in 2019. Smugglers bought radio spots warning families there was a brief window to travel to the States. United before the next crackdown.

After being treated at a border patrol facility, migrant children traveling alone are supposed to be transferred to a shelter run by the Department of Health and Human Services, where many are then handed over to a relative sponsor.

But Mr Trump has dissuaded many sponsors from claiming these children by demanding that they provide fingerprints and other personal information that some feared could be used later to locate and deport them. With limited spaces in these shelters as well as longer-term detention centers run by immigration and customs services, holding cells along the border were once again filled with children without adequate sanitary resources. and exposed to disease. They have been held in border cells for weeks, although the government is supposed to move them to shelters within 72 hours.

“There was the initial policy of separation of children by zero tolerance,” said Mr Ramón. “There was a background policy that required fingerprints to get children out of detention.”

“This is where you create this backlog of children in facilities that weren’t designed for them,” he added.

Detention centers aren’t as relevant now – but not because the migration has stopped. Instead, thanks to its ‘stay in Mexico’ policy, the Trump administration has forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait across the border for hearings, creating squalid refugee camps in some of the most dangerous areas of Mexico.

The administration also cited the coronavirus as using a public health emergency rule to promptly return migrants, including children traveling alone, to Mexico or their country of origin.

During Thursday’s debate, Mr. Trump made his “They built the cages” accusation at Mr. Biden repeatedly, so often that it was difficult for Mr. Biden to respond. But the former vice president managed to say that the parents had their children “ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find more than 500 sets of these parents and these children are alone, nowhere to go, nowhere to go.

“It’s criminal,” Biden added.

Lee Gelernt, the leading lawyer challenging the family separation policy, said Mr. Trump was trying to “deflect the debate” from a policy that was exclusive to his administration.

“The point is that no other administration, Democrat or Republican, has ever systematically separated children,” Gelernt said. “The actions of the Trump administration to systematically separate children are unprecedented and what made it so much more horrible was that there was no age limit. Even babies and toddlers were separated.