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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

How scaremongering and a fictional narrative are keeping migrant parents and children apart

Whether the US president has to ultimately back down on family separation and imprisonment will reveal much about the condition of the American political soul, writes Hussein Ibish

US President Donald Trump speaking on immigration in the South Court auditorium, next to the White House. Mandel Ngan / AFP
US President Donald Trump speaking on immigration in the South Court auditorium, next to the White House. Mandel Ngan / AFP

The separation of migrant children from their parents is a massive and historically significant stress test for the American political soul and system.

At the heart of the issue is race and Donald Trump's determination to weaponise white Christian tribal anger about the growing size and influence of minority groups. He was elected on a hardline anti-immigrant platform based on the stereotyping of Mexicans as “drug dealers and rapists” and Muslims as "terrorists".

Mr Trump clearly believes that his principal commitment to the voters, many of them former Democrats, is an anti-immigrant crackdown. He is reportedly upset that he has, as yet, made little progress on this.

The separation controversy stems from his April zero tolerance order that anyone crossing the border without permission must be jailed and prosecuted, even though that is usually a misdemeanour.

Because children could not be jailed and parents had to spend weeks, if not months, waiting to be prosecuted, families were separated.

Mr Trump was apparently happy with that, especially because he viewed ripping children from their parents as an effective deterrent to migration. He seems taken aback the rest of the country has been less thrilled.

But every time Mr Trump has tried to enact xenophobic immigration policies, it has backfired spectacularly.

First there was the ban on travellers from mostly Muslim countries, which has been repeatedly rejected by courts and caused tremendous chaos at airports when it was first launched shortly after he took office.

Then came his efforts to pressure Democrats on immigration policy by threatening the status of the young adults known as "dreamers", who were brought to the country as small children.

Now he has deployed the deliberate traumatisation of migrant children, hundreds of whom are now apparently missing within the labyrinthine system.

The chaos intensified after Mr Trump signed a fuzzy executive order against separating families last Thursday.

The Justice Department insists it requires the long-term jailing of entire families together and is getting the military to quickly build “temporary and austere” tent cities to house tens of thousands of migrants. US Customs and Border Protection, though, insists such plans are totally unworkable and because they involve children, probably illegal.

In all three cases, Mr Trump has bet that jingoism would prove a political winner while his opponents believed he went too far.

Whether he ultimately has to back down on family separation and imprisonment will reveal much about the condition of the American political soul.

If Mr Trump is right, the majority have become hysterically xenophobic.

If they're not, he will continue to be pushed back on zero tolerance and child separation and will suffer a significant repudiation at the polls in the November midterm elections.

Even US allies who think they don't care about the condition of the American soul need to pay close attention to both the process and the outcome of this unfolding fiasco.

First, white nationalist impulses strongly correlate with neo-isolationist foreign policy attitudes.

That's potentially bad news for America's allies, including in the Gulf, who need US foreign policy to remain committed to the international goals and concomitant alliances and military and diplomatic commitments that ensure their security.

The more Mr Trump is pulled in the white nationalist direction, the less Washington will feel bound by obligations to allies, who become easily dispensable, as Japan and South Korea may be discovering.

It's also much harder for clear-eyed policy to overrule emotive politics when all relationships become zero-sum and bound in identity.

Secondly, it's no secret the Trump administration has an uneasy relationship with objective reality.

Indeed, Mr Trump has managed to separate what he presents as a deeper, emotive truth — conveyed through the alternate realities he conjures in his largely fictional narratives — entirely from the verifiable facts, which he denies and dismisses if they contradict him.

But the American political system is premised on compromise based on institutional checks and balances, and debates between different power centres.

There’s always a gap between interpretations and some shading of the truth. That's normal politics. But the Trump administration has introduced – and in the immigration debate considerably sharpened – the deployment of entirely fictiional alternate realities into the American conversation.

Mr Trump insisted he was forced to separate families by laws that did not exist and that he could not resolve the issue by executive order, as he then claimed to do. His officials bizarrely maintained there was no such policy at all.

The US president also invoked an immigrant crimewave in both the United States and Germany that is entirely fictitious. To reinforce that widely held misapprehension, he even held a press conference with the parents of those killed by undocumented migrants, although every study shows native-born US citizens are far more likely to commit crimes than immigrants of any kind.

Such utter fabrications made any serious discussion of both the underlying realities and policy options practically impossible.

One cannot debate someone who insists they’re bound by imaginary laws and who makes up and says anything they like to suit their immediate purposes, with no compunction or reference whatsoever to underlying reality.

The US is a status quo power. It needs to be predictable and stabilising. It cannot succeed in its international mission with impetuous, reckless, chaotic decision-making. And the American system cannot function with its discourse completely untethered to fact and reality.

Even US allies who are happy with some aspects of the Trump foreign policy need to ponder if this is a transient moment or a new American normal – and fervently hope it's the former.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington