On Monday night, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway did an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “Cuomo Prime Time.”
This exchange happened:
CUOMO: Kellyanne, you don’t have the high moral ground on this. You changed a policy to impress your base. You got a pop in the polls with them and you’re OK with destruction and harshness. Just own it.
CONWAY: How dare you. How dare you. If you want to live in a nation, a sovereign nation that doesn’t have borders, you go for it.
CUOMO: Nobody is asking for that.
CONWAY: You and the people from your party, excuse me, say, we want open borders, just do it.
CUOMO: Nobody is asking you for that.
CONWAY: Let me tell you something, if you –
CUOMO: They’re saying don’t take kids from parents when you don’t have to, the way Bush chose not to, the way Obama chose not to, Kellyanne. You know the play here. It’s an ugly play.
CONWAY: No, listen to me. I have said to you what the President said steps behind me on a different network, or actually to the press gaggle, where there are CNN reporters, three short days ago. We’ve all said it. Nobody likes it.
However, nobody also likes people coming and smuggling children. It is a huge enterprise. Why aren’t you at the border screaming every day to stop this half a trillion-dollar enterprise in child smuggling?
What Conway is doing here isn’t complicated, but it is dishonest. She is casting the ongoing family separation crisis as a black-and-white choice. Either:
1) The Trump administration enforces the law and prosecutes every single person who tries to enter the country illegally
2) “Open borders” = gang members, rapists and other criminals surge across the border into the United States
President Donald Trump said as much on Twitter Tuesday morning: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
The problem with that choice is that it entirely false.
Remember that the reason we have so many family separations at the border right now is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this spring that the administration would put in place a “zero-tolerance” policy. That meant that every person crossing the border illegally would be referred for prosecution. And because children can’t be held in federal jails (as their parents are while they await adjudication of their cases) they are separated. It’s as simple as that.
By instituting the zero-tolerance policy, the Trump administration guaranteed this sort of separation would happen much more often – particularly given that there was no concurrent addition in the number of Department of Homeland Security officials to deal with the expected increase.
No matter what Trump or DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen or Conway or anyone else in the administration says, this is a policy choice. There is no law mandating that children be separated from their parents. But when you choose to prosecute every single person who comes into the US illegally, you are creating this crisis. That is a choice.
What isn’t a choice is the way Conway is framing the issue. Prior to this spring, the policy in place was that the vast majority of families traveling together were not prosecuted – so as to avoid just these sorts of heart-wrenching separations of parents and small children. With a single call to AG Sessions, Trump could go back to that policy.
And that policy – which, remember, has been in place for years – would not mean the border is entirely open, free for anyone, including hardened criminals, to cross into the US. It would mean only that people traveling as a family would in most cases not be prosecuted for trying to enter the country illegally. It would go back to the way things had been.
For some, including Trump and his allies, that may be unacceptable.
Trump and Nielsen have made plain that they believe that the US policy of not prosecuting people traveling as a family unit has been badly exploited by all sorts of criminals in recent years – pointing to a surge in the percentage of people trying to enter the US as a family unit in the last few years.
But it’s hard to argue that the US looked like this back when we weren’t prosecuting family units for illegal border crossings.
That’s at the heart of the false choice Conway and her ilk are selling. Either we enforce the law or we descend into dangerous chaos. While fear is a powerful motivator, it doesn’t make something false suddenly true. Which means that what Conway is saying is simply wrong.