Too Afraid to Ask: Immigration extravaganza

What the hell just happened?

It’s hard to know where to start with everything that happened last week, so let’s just start here: Was it illegal? Yes. Yes, it probably was.

But that could cover a wide range of topics in U.S. politics right now, so let’s get a little more specific. Last week was hair-raising for immigration reporters, not to mention the press staff at the Department of Homeland Security who are probably at their wits’ end by now, and there were a few key headlines to come out of that week of absolute insanity.

Most notably, the Trump administration is considering reprising its policy of family separation, which was halted by a federal court order last year. The Washington Post also reported that the White House at multiple points last year proposed transporting immigrants detained at the southern border to sanctuary cities around the U.S. In response to the Post story, an administration official clarified that the plan was never seriously considered, only to be contradicted by the president on Twitter.

Also last week, a federal judge struck down a Trump administration program that would have had asylum seekers wait in Mexico until granted a court hearing on the grounds that it violated federal law. Characteristically, the president took to Twitter to share his thoughts about the ruling, and he reportedly told the new acting DHS secretary, Kevin McAleenan, that he should violate asylum laws at the southern border to stem the flow of migrants and that he would pardon him if he found himself in legal jeopardy as a result.

And if you noticed that I said acting DHS secretary, that’s the other thing that happened last week. The Trump administration undertook what one administration official told CNN was a “near-systematic” purge of the Department of Homeland Security, ousting not only DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen but Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles and acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady, with others reportedly still on the chopping block. Trump also withdrew his nomination of acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Ron Vitellio to run the agency permanently, and Vitellio has since stepped down.

So what happens next?

Needless to say, none of this is normal. Some of it has even elicited a response from members of the GOP in Congress, which I would hasten to add is also not normal. Several prominent Republican senators cautioned the president not to continue with his purge of the DHS, and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., expressed concern about a “leadership void” at the agency.

Johnson also expressed his opposition to the possibility of a new family separation policy called “binary choice,” as compared to the previous “zero tolerance” policy implemented under Nielsen’s tenure.

Such a policy, according to administration officials, would give immigrant parents a choice to remain with their children in detention or allow their children to be separated from them. It would also likely be illegal under the 1997 Flores settlement, which prohibits the government from detaining children for more than 20 days.

Trump, it should be noted, appears to be unclear on the particulars of the Flores settlement, and recently confused the eponymous Flores, a 15-year-old immigrant, for a judge.

In regard to the whole “releasing immigrants in sanctuary cities” thing: yeah, also probably not legal. At least, when the White House suggested it, the ICE legal team, according to the Washington Post, rejected the idea as illegal, and House Democrats concurred in a letter sent to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and McAleenan on Monday.

According to the same Post story, “the attempt at political retribution raised alarm within ICE, with a top official responding that it was rife with budgetary and liability concerns, and noting that ‘there are PR risks as well.’”

Democrats have also criticized the president’s plan, saying that the idea of using human beings as a political weapon is profoundly wrong, not to mention the presumption that releasing immigrants — who, statistically, are more law-abiding than native-born citizens — would be politically damaging to Democrats who represent districts with sanctuary cities.

In a Washington Post op-ed last week, the Democratic mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, wrote that “this president believes that immigrants and refugees burden our country and burden cities like ours. But he could not be more wrong.”

And if the administration pursues either its new family separation plan or a policy of transporting immigrants detained at the border to sanctuary cities, it will probably be met with an immediate flurry of legal challenges from the ACLU, state attorneys general and others, including from Washington State.

The big picture

So, what does all of this mean? In the big picture, all the madness of last week is indicative of Trump’s desire to “go in a tougher direction” with immigration enforcement at the southern border. In other words, expect things to get even crazier.

According to a New York Times story from last week, in his purge of the DHS, “Mr. Trump is getting rid of voices who sometimes cautioned him against taking actions they believed to be illegal or unwise.” And as he grows increasingly frustrated with his inability to stem the flow of migrants — which is driven in part by the impact of climate change in Northern Triangle countries — expect more threats to close the southern border and pursue other drastic strategies to control immigration. And expect more policy driven by immigration hardliner Stephen Miller, who has reportedly championed many of the administration’s most extreme policies.

However, given the number of times Trump has contradicted members of his administration in the last week, it’s hard to say what exactly will happen next, so buckle up. The only good news is that after immigration week last week, this week is Mueller week, so America will collectively get to take a break from one nonstop news cycle in lieu of another — look for a TATA column on that soon.