Melania Trump's words about children at the US border are being rewritten as part of a pro-Donald narrative – but what's the truth?

The result of Sessions’ crackdown has been the separation of almost 2,000 children from their parents in a period of just six weeks

Will Gore
Monday 18 June 2018 15:20 BST
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Donald Trump blames Democrats for children being taken from families at Mexico border

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Melania Trump’s recent hospitalisation led to all sorts of speculation. Officially, she had a benign kidney condition, now successfully treated. Judging by her surprisingly forthright statement at the weekend about America’s present policy towards migrant children at the Mexican border, it is tempting to wonder whether she also gained a renewed clarity of vision.

Certainly her call for America to “govern with a heart” sharpened the national focus on the zero-tolerance approach to “illegal” immigration from Mexico announced last month by Jeff Sessions, the US attorney general.

Previously, those attempting an “irregular” crossing were given a misdemeanour ticket; now, all adults who cross the border (even those set on making an asylum claim) are placed in custody ahead of criminal prosecution. Their children, meanwhile, are placed in detention centres under the care of local authorities. The result of Sessions’ crackdown has been the separation of almost 2,000 children from their parents in a period of just six weeks.

The Trump administration has blamed a law passed by the Democrats, although no legislation mandating that families be split up exists. True, the current law does not prohibit the practice, but the decision to enact familial separation as a matter of course can be laid nowhere else than at the door of the attorney general, and ultimately the president.

So what to make of Melania’s intervention? As an immigrant herself, it seems reasonable to suppose she has a particular interest in migration policies – although “hating” images of crying children being separated from their mothers and fathers is really just the reaction of a normal person. Still, in her position as America’s first lady, she has generally shied away from the media spotlight, frequently seeming uncomfortable at the public nature of a role she never expected, and probably never wanted (though she has disputed that contention in the past).

Certainly Melania Trump is rarely overtly political in her pronouncements. And while that’s hardly a legitimate criticism in its own right, it is that backdrop which made her commentary on the Mexican border crisis all the more unanticipated.

Supporters of the Trump administration have argued that Melania’s words simply mirrored the president’s, with her call for “both sides of the aisle” to “come together to achieve successful immigration reform”. And with a measure soon to be debated in congress which would, among other things, stop family separations, there is a chance that will happen.

Indeed, some (including Jan Halper-Hayes, part of the Trump transition team, speaking on BBC Radio 4) have gone further, arguing that the president has allowed Sessions to implement his tough approach in order to shine a light on the legal loophole and to ensure it is closed – which is rather like saying the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was a do-gooder, trying to expose the iniquities of the Bomburst regime in Vulgaria.

In Trump’s America, where reality is secondary to the president’s ego, anything that is said or done must be contextualised by his allies within a pro-Donald narrative. That is presumably why Melania’s comments about migration policy have been repeated so forcefully by other Republicans, who claim she made them with her husband’s blessing and they are only an echo of his own pronouncements.

Yet it is notable that numerous commentators have piled in behind the first lady, and in their turn have been much more explicit in placing the blame on the White House for the present policy. The effect of her statement has thus been to embolden critics. To contend that this is the consequence of some peculiar masterplan by the president to force a change in the law is not only illogical but also denies all agency on Melania’s part (which, to be fair, is something that Trump critics have regularly been guilty of, too). There may also be comparisons with Ivanka Trump’s supposed influence over her father’s Syrian policy.

Of all the extraordinary, morality-busting tales of Donald Trump’s administration, the removal of thousands of children (including babies and toddlers) from their desperate parents is arguably the most despicable. The suggestion that officials in Texas are ready to build “tent cities” in the desert to house hundreds more scared and lonely youngsters is almost unfathomable. Whatever America’s problems with illegal immigration (and they are real), the Trump/Sessions approach provides no decent answers, only inhuman retorts.

Melania’s plea to “govern with a heart” shouldn’t be dismissed simply as a means of supporting her husband’s own, anti-Democrat narrative, riddled as it is with nonsense and lies. Rather, her comment underscores an important truth about Donald Trump: which is that he embodies an administration that governs utterly without empathy.

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