The Government Unjustly Separates American Families Too. But Shouldn't That Make Us More Sympathetic?

An unsatisfying answer to the question of why Trump country seems unfazed by immigrant family separation.


Abaca Press/Douliery Olivier/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom

President Trump announced today that he would sign an executive order ending automatic separation of immigrant families that enter the country illegally, following days of public outrage over the practice.

Not everyone is against these separations, however. A recent poll found that 97 percent of Democrats were against it, as were 68 percent of independents. Just 35 percent of Republicans shared this perspective.

Many conservative opinion-makers and most national Republican politicians are aghast at the routine warehousing of children and babies resulting from the Trump administration's zero-tolerance approach to illegal immigration. But it seems they may be out of step with conservatives in the heartland, and not for the first time.

The Week's Matthew Walther has an interesting suggestion about why "Trump country is unfazed by the child separation crisis." Trump supporters in the rural Midwest, Walther says, routinely interact with soulless government bureaucracies that vindictively break apart families. Take child protective services: Just a few days ago, my colleague Lenore Skenazy wrote about a case in Minnesota where cops came to take away a woman's 10-month-old baby because they thought the mother wasn't sufficiently freaked out about the kid's cough.

Denizens of Trump country, Walther writes, are accustomed to being treated like this:

The women my wife sees enjoying weekly supervised visits with their children at the local public library in our small Michigan town live in childless homes because their toddler fell down once or because a member of their family was convicted of taking or selling drugs. Parenting is something they have learned to conceive of as a kind of privilege rather than as a right.

They are accustomed to other sorts of random cruelties as well. Many of them live every day with the harassment of police officers, the condescension of teachers and social workers and the rest of the educational and public health bureaucracy, the leers of judges, the scolding of doctors and nurses, the incompetence of Veterans Affairs, even the smirks of grocery store clerks who seem to think that a woman who buys a case of beer while her children are in the shopping cart or when she is using food stamps to purchase her other groceries belongs to a lower order of mammals.

Such treatment is often callous, and often unjustified. But why would being mistreated by CPS or Veterans Affairs make people less sympathetic to immigrant families enduring similar cruelty? If anything, one might expect them to be more outraged about family separation.

Many of the disadvantaged people who deal regularly with CPS probably do feel that way. Black families are disproportionately likely to be split up by the government, but this experience has not hardened their hearts against immigrant families. On the contrary, black Americans overwhelmingly oppose the border wall and believe children who came to the country illegally should be able to remain and become citizens. According to a Quinnipiac poll from April, dissatisfaction with Trump's policies regarding undocumented immigrant children was actually higher among black Americans than among Hispanic Americans.

Why would white Americans with good reason to resent the government for breaking up families nevertheless seem to take ICE's side in the current controversy, while black Americans in the same situation do not? Maybe Trump country is fazed by immigrant family separations to the exact extent that Trump himself is. Now that Trump seems ready to address the issue, I would expect to see a lot of supporters saying the president is right to keep the families together.