Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

“President Trump on Wednesday [June 20] walked back his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border that had united most of America in opposition … In classic Trumpian fashion, the President took credit for reversing a policy he previously said he couldn’t reverse … But this was a problem of his own creation, and ‘zero tolerance’ is part of it.”

— Wall Street Journal, lead editorial, June 21 

President Donald Trump has a gift for creating turmoil. His eccentric leadership style — fluid on details, thriving on criticism, unapologetic about mistakes and contradictions — often works to his advantage by enraging his opponents and entertaining the masses. He’s built a career by capitalizing on enemies who underestimate him.

But there’s a human cost to political theater that can be inexcusably ugly, especially when it’s paid by children. The administration’s most recent blunder — separating children from their parents caught illegally entering the country — was both stupid and destructive, and the storm of anger it sparked, warranted.


Some background is in order. Last month, acting on a new “zero tolerance” White House policy toward immigrants illegally entering the country, the Justice Department determined that all persons detained illegally crossing the border should be prosecuted as criminals. But many undocumented immigrants travel as families. They arrive with children, and a 1997 court decree (the Flores settlement) forbids the detention of minors. Thus, a different government agency (HHS) took charge of the children — totaling about 2,300 — while their parents were readied for deportation. This turned into a media disaster for the administration. On June 20, Trump issued an executive order reuniting children and their families during their processing.

The worst part of this story, however, is that it’s simply the latest chapter in an endless and often hypocritical struggle by both political parties over the details of immigration reform. The wrangling has been going on for many years. And the result is always the same: gridlock and mutual recrimination.

A year ago in this space, I wrote about the arrest and detention of the mother of Jaime L., a student at one of our Philadelphia-area Catholic schools. Jaime and his brother were born in the United States and have American citizenship; his parents were not, and thus were “illegals.” Jaime’s mother was stopped on her way to work one morning by immigration authorities, arrested, detained, and ultimately deported.

Yet despite hundreds of painful stories like Jaime’s; thousands of families split apart by the deportation of a mother or father or both; and immense publicity about the plight of “Dreamers” — i.e., the 1.8 million young adults brought to the United States illegally as children who have grown up here and know no other home — nothing substantially has changed about our immigration laws in the last 12 months, or in the last 24 or 36 or 48.

The Trump presidency has aggravated the frictions inherent to this issue, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. The responsibility for fixing our immigration problems has always resided with Congress, not the White House, and over the past decade both political parties have excelled at the kind of calculating, partisan obstructionism that makes a fix impossible.

We’re better than this as a nation. And if we really want to “make America great again,” with a moral character that proves it, then the people who make and apply our laws need to act accordingly.