Ripping children away from their parents is the most cinematically cruel part of the Trump immigration policy, but it is not the most telling part. The most telling part is what happened to Ludvin Franco.
Franco was an unauthorized immigrant who had been working in this country for more than a decade. His wife, Anne, is from a Pennsylvania Dutch family that has been in this country for generations. They were married in 2013 and have three American children, Max, Javier and Valentina.
In the spring of 2017, Franco got in a minor traffic crash near his Pennsylvania home. A few weeks later as he was leaving for work, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement swarmed him, took him away and deported him to Guatemala. He watched the delivery of his third child through the screen of his cellphone, 3,200 miles away.
This is an example of ICE going after a perfectly productive member of society. I got the anecdote from a series of reports that Deborah Sontag and Dale Russakoff did for ProPublica and The Philadelphia Inquirer. They found that 64 percent of the immigrants arrested by ICE in the agency’s Philadelphia region had no prior criminal conviction.
Sontag and Russakoff capture the fabric of immigration enforcement today: a van-load of men coming back from an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering detained by a state trooper after a routine traffic stop; a magisterial district judge in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, pre-empting a Tajik wedding by calling ICE on the groom and best man, who were led away in handcuffs; work sites raided, with the Latinos separated from everybody else and lined up face to the wall; police officers who ticket Hispanics at a rate of twice or even five times their share of the population.
There are 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country. Every past administration has used some discretion in targeting whom to deport. They targeted those who were destroying society, not building it. They tried to take account of particular contexts, and they tried to show some sense of basic humanity.
But today, discretion and humanity are being stamped out. The Trump administration has embraced a “zero tolerance” policy. In practice, that means that all complexity has to be reduced to uniformity. Compassion is replaced by a blind obedience to regulations. Context is irrelevant. Arrests are indiscriminate. All that matters is that the arrest numbers go up, so people in the system are reduced to numbers.
What’s most significant is this: The Trump administration immigration officials have become exactly the kind of monsters that conservatism has always warned against.
For centuries, conservatives have repeated a specific critique against state power. Statism, conservatives have argued, has a tendency to become brutalist and inhumane because a bureaucracy can’t see or account for the complexity of reality. It tries to impose uniform rules on the organic intricacy of human relationships. Statist social engineering projects cause horrific suffering because in the mind of statists, the abstract rule is more important than the human in front of them. The person must be crushed for the sake of the abstraction.
This is exactly what the Trump immigration policies are doing. Families are ripped apart and children are left weeping by the fences constructed by government officials blindly following a regulation.
This illustrates something crucial about this administration. It is not populated by conservatives. It is populated by anti-liberal trolls. There’s a difference.
People like Stephen Miller are not steeped in conservative thinking and do not operate with a conservative disposition. They were formed by their rebellion against the stifling conformity they found at liberal universities. Their primary orientation is not to conservative governance but to owning the libs. In power they take the worst excesses of statism and flip them for anti-liberal ends.
Here’s how you can detect the anti-liberal trolls in the immigration debate: Watch how they use the word “amnesty.” Immigration is a complex issue. Any serious reform has to grapple with tangled realities, and any real conservative has an appreciation for that complexity. But if you try to account for that complexity before an anti-immigration troll, he or she will shout one word: Amnesty!
Maybe we should find some arrangement for the Dreamers? Amnesty! The so-called moderate House immigration bill? Amnesty! Keeping families together? Amnesty!
This is what George Orwell noticed about the authoritarian brutalists: They don’t use words to illuminate the complexity of reality; they use words to eradicate the complexity of reality.
Look at how the Republican candidates for the GOP Senate nomination in Arizona answered questions about a provision to keep families together at the border. They responded with inhumane abstractions: “I try not to get swayed by what the emotions are or the pressure,” Martha McSally said. “Compromising on the rule of law to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants is the wrong path to take,” Kelli Ward replied.
“Amnesty” has become a club the trolls use in their attempt to stamp a rigid steel boot on the neck of the immigration debate. It’s the sign of a party slowly losing its humanity.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service