Sometimes it’s the little things that send you over the edge. At the end of what felt like the worst week, so far, of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, I found myself fixating on a new detail of the bumbler’s cruelty: The fact that his administration is forcing family members to pay small fortunes to take custody of child immigrants stuck in detention centers.
Although federal officials have no formal plan for reuniting the more than 2,300 children they have ripped away from parents in recent weeks, there is an established (if inadequate) family reunification policy, formalized after the 2013 surge of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America. Unfortunately, it turns out that under Trump, the family members of detained minors—the aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents who are willing to take these children out of child concentration camps, if their parents aren’t available—are being forced to pay for their young relatives’ travel to their new homes. The New York Times had a devastating story about it on Sunday.
These mostly low-wage workers, some of them undocumented themselves, are having to come up with thousands of dollars to get the children they’ve agreed to take in. They’re also being forced to pay for a federal official to fly with the child, round trip, because of course, a child can’t be allowed to fly alone. The niceties this barbaric regime chooses to observe are surreal. Kids who’ve been ripped from a parent’s arms and put, alone, in kennels or tents or shelters; kids who’ve been dragged across the border by dangerous smuggling cartels; well, of course they must not be allowed to get on a plane by themselves. That would be cruel!
As it happens, there is a federal regulation that asks families to pay this fee. But facing a crisis of minors at the border, the Obama administration waived it. It turns out the Trump administration actually likes some regulations: the ones that are cruel to the vulnerable. So it is enforcing this one—even though it may cost the government more money, by delaying the transfer of kids to their families. “The human cost incurred aside, the financial cost for the government is significant,” the head of refugee resettlement under the Obama administration told the Times. “One day of care could cover transportation costs.”
Take that in: The humanitarian choice is also the fiscally responsible one. The Trump administration is choosing to spend extra money to be extra punishing to these already traumatized children and their families. Your tax dollars at work, indeed. Every day there is an abomination that makes you take in, at a deeper level, this administration’s cruelty. On Sunday, that was mine.
As it turns out, I spent the worst week of Trump’s presidency on vacation in Ireland. It was a tough time to try to take a break from social media and obsessive news consumption. Even the weather kept me from forgetting the state of emergency we’re living in today: in gorgeous green Ireland, a record-breaking hot spell triggered warnings of wildfire and drought, and the surreal threat of water-conservation measures in a land that is mostly water. We know that drought has worsened refugee crises, from Syria to Central America. The sweltering weather was just another reminder of what was awaiting at home, where Trump is criminalizing those Central Americans’ asylum claims, while his EPA accelerates the climate crisis.
But I’m not sure we’re quite keeping up with the pace of Trump-created emergencies. I came home inspired to see hundreds of thousands of people, all across the country, marching to protest both Trump’s family separation policy and his newer gambit, adopted after cross-country outrage over family separation, to continue to treat asylum-seekers as criminals, but to detain them with their children. Protesters weren’t fooled: Family detention camps are still an abomination. Many millions of dollars have been raised for the humanitarian and legal aid groups working with these families; no doubt someone is figuring out a way to help pay the travel costs of detained children as well. I’m awed by all of it.
On a higher political level, though, Democrats seem overmatched by Trump’s multi-front assault on norms and decency. I can’t express how depressing it was to watch from afar as Democratic leaders wasted time tone-policing colleagues, whether to chastise Representative Maxine Waters for suggesting Americans continue to confront administration officials and “tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” or to distance themselves from newly nominated Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call to abolish ICE (a call that’s been echoed by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris.)
Trump has already called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi an “MS-13 lover.” He’s not going to curb his slurs because Pelosi separates herself from Waters or Ocasio-Cortez, or pushes back on efforts to abolish ICE. Meanwhile, Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat from Barack Obama, and got rewarded with decisions last week gutting public employee union rights and blessing racial gerrymandering. Thanks to Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, they’re about to get another one, yet Democratic leaders seem uncertain about whether and how to fight another Trump nominee. They need to stop demonizing the left flank of the party and start channeling its toughness and energy.