As the new administration of President Joe Biden begins to roll back the draconian anti-immigration policies of the Trump era, Fox News is furiously trying to spin away the abuses of the former president’s family separation policy.
Contrary to the network's lies and misinformation, family separation -- the result of former President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” approach to unauthorized border crossings -- was not only an unprecedented and intentional choice, but also a barbaric and xenophobic policy with no regard for the harms it caused to undocumented families. No amount of Fox News' gaslighting, which rehash Trump’s debunked excuses for a policy specifically chosen for the pain it would cause, can change those facts. As explained by Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU attorney who successfully sued to stop the family separations:
“The fact is no other administration, Democrat or Republican, has ever systematically separated children,” Mr. Gelernt said. “The Trump administration’s actions to systematically separate children is unprecedented and what made that much more horrific is that there was no age limit. Even babies and toddlers were separated.”
Of the thousands of families affected, 611 children still have yet to be reunited with their parents. Below are examples of the talking points Fox News personalities are using in their attempt to whitewash the inhumanity of these family separations.
Fox News lies that family separation is required
On February 2, Fox News’ Pete Hegseth insisted that “there’s a huge misrepresentation of why children were separated from families at the border in the first place. It's like anyone who commits a crime is separated from their kids.”
On February 3, The Five’s Jesse Watters argued not separating families was unacceptable and “a coyote’s dream.”
Fox News falsely blames former President Barack Obama
On February 2, Fox News’ Katie Pavlich tried to shift blame for family separations to the Obama administration.
On February 9, The Faulkner Focus’ Harris Faulkner falsely equated Trump’s family separation policy to Obama’s emergency handling of unaccompanied minors.
Fox News argues the adults weren’t really the parents
On February 2, Fox News’ Katie Pavlich shamelessly claimed “a lot of these kids that came with quote ‘parents’ weren’t parents at all and they were paid by smugglers to bring them to the border.”
On February 2, Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade dismissed family reunification because “turns out they were never together.”
Fox News insists it’s actually the parents’ fault
On February 3, Fox’s Kennedy blamed the parents: “My question is, as a parent, where are those parents? Go back and get your kids.”
In fact, family separation was an unprecedented Trump creation
On January 14, The New York Times reported that the “zero tolerance” policy was invented to placate Trump’s tantrums about undocumented immigration.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly tried to avoid responsibility for his administration’s family separation policy by falsely blaming Democrats and former President Barack Obama.
The inspector general report does not issue a formal finding that the responsibility for the zero-tolerance policy rests with Mr. Trump. It concludes that top Justice Department officials were a “driving force” behind the decision to put in place policies that led to separating families.
But the report and the other documents directly implicate the Trump White House.
On October 23, 2020, the Times explained how “zero tolerance” was a “deliberate act of family separation” without precedent.
The Obama administration separated children from adults at the border only in cases when there was a doubt about the familial relationship between a child and an accompanying adult or if the adult had a serious criminal record.
Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was a deliberate act of family separation, meant to deter migrants from trying to enter the United States. It directed prosecutors to file criminal charges against everyone who crossed the border without authorization, including parents, who were then separated from their children when they were taken into custody.
That policy was ended amid international outcry, but its repercussions remain.
Family separation was never required; it was a “zero tolerance” shift
On June 19, 2018, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker debunked the Trump administration’s lie that it was legally obligated to separate children from their parents, determining that “they’re being separated because the Trump administration, under its zero-tolerance policy, is choosing to prosecute border-crossing adults for any offenses.”
The doublespeak coming from Trump and top administration officials on this issue is breathtaking, not only because of the sheer audacity of these claims but also because they keep being repeated without evidence. Immigrant families are being separated at the border not because of Democrats and not because some law forces this result, as Trump insists. They’re being separated because the Trump administration, under its zero-tolerance policy, is choosing to prosecute border-crossing adults for any offenses.
This includes illegal-entry misdemeanors, which are being prosecuted at a rate not seen in previous administrations. Because the act of crossing itself is now being treated as an offense worthy of prosecution, any family that enters the United States illegally is likely to end up separated. Nielsen may choose not to call this a “family separation policy,” but that’s precisely the effect it has.
Sessions, who otherwise owns up to what’s happening, has suggested that the Flores settlement and a court ruling are forcing his hand. They’re not. At heart, this is an issue of prosecutorial discretion: his discretion.
The Trump administration owns this family-separation policy, and its spin deserves Four Pinocchios.
In January of 2021, the Trump administration’s own inspector general for the Department of Justice concluded that “zero tolerance” caused family separation, an unprecedented reversal of the historical policy to “avoid the separation of the family.”
The decision to criminally prosecute adults illegally entering the country as part of a family unit (family unit adults) represented a change in U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ, Department) and DHS practice. Historically, when DHS apprehended adults with children crossing the border, in most cases DHS would not refer the adult to DOJ for criminal prosecution. One reason for not referring the family unit adult to DOJ for criminal prosecution had been to avoid the separation of the family during the pendency of the adult’s prosecution. Rather than separate the family unit by referring the adult to DOJ for criminal prosecution, DHS would typically detain and administratively remove from the United States the adult and children together or provide the family with a Notice to Appear before an Immigration Judge and release them on their own recognizance into the United States until their immigration hearing date. The practice of releasing the adult and children into the United States until his or her immigration hearing date is referred to by some as “catch and release.” The issuance of the zero tolerance policy by Sessions on April 6, 2018, coincided with a presidential memorandum, issued on the same day, that directed the Attorney General, DHS Secretary, and other cabinet officials to report on steps taken by their agencies to end catch and release.
We were told that, since at least 1992, immigration officials, with the concurrence of the USAOs on the Southwest border, largely avoided separating families by not prosecuting family unit adults. Although some family separations occurred prior to the zero tolerance policy, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in November 2016 only 0.3 percent of migrant children in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) custody were known to be separated from their parents.
Family separation will go down in history as one of Trump’s most despicable and xenophobic acts
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, argues the Biden administration has “a moral imperative to eliminate the historic stain on this country.”
The Biden administration is inheriting tremendous challenges. But addressing family separation should be a no-brainer. In 2018, when the country learned that babies and toddlers were being ripped from their parents’ arms, the public revulsion spanned the ideological spectrum. The sentiment was uniform: our government should not take babies from their parents and use them as political pawns.
Ultimately, it is a moral imperative to eliminate the historic stain on this country. I have been doing this work at the ACLU for nearly 30 years and have never seen a more inhumane practice or one that received such widespread, swift, and unequivocal condemnation. I still worry, though, that all the talk of aggregate statistics and abstract policy prescriptions will blur the human dimension, and the fact that the trauma caused to each of these children by family separation is its own tragic story.
Vox conducted a survey of research on race in its attempt to contextualize Trump’s family separation policy and concluded that “the dehumanization of people of other races makes it easier to carry out atrocities.”
In just five weeks, US officials separated more than 2,300 children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. While the Trump administration has been deliberately obtuse about its intents, the “zero tolerance” approach appears to be part of a strategy to scare people from illegally crossing the border -- by, essentially, using the possibility of parents losing their kids as a threat.
It’s easy to wonder how any of this is possible. How can someone care so little about children and families that they’re willing to use kids -- and separation from their parents -- as pawns in immigration policy? And how can the people implementing that policy on the ground hear sobbing children and joke about what’s going on?
One inescapable answer is race. These are, after all, immigrants of color coming from Latin America. Many of the people implementing these immigration policies, from Trump and his Cabinet down to border agents, are predominantly white. And based on the research, that makes them much less likely to view brown kids and their parents with a sense of humanity.