In 1729, an Irish political writer named Jonathan Swift noted with sorrow the large number of hungry children in Ireland and offered "a modest proposal" to solve the problem. His suggestion was for people to buy and eat them.
This option, he pointed out, would spare the children lives of poverty, prevent abortion and infanticide, relieve the burden on their parents, and "contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands."
Swift, of course, wasn't serious. He was satirizing the callous disregard of Ireland's British rulers for the suffering of their subjects.
Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are not joking. Compared with Swift's proposal, their policy of snatching toddlers from the arms of mothers who arrive in the United States to escape turmoil in Central America was exceedingly mild. No child has been eaten. By any other standard, their approach was a model of brutality, inflicting unspeakable horror on children and parents. It was so ugly that on Wednesday, Trump decided to drop it.
But that's a matter of political expediency, not humanity. After all, this is a president who has endorsed torture. In 2015, Trump said he favored waterboarding regardless of its efficacy in extracting information from suspected terrorists. "If it doesn't work," he said, "they deserve it anyway for what they're doing."
His border policy brought to mind John Yoo, a Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration. Asked in 2005 whether it would be legal for the president to order his subordinates to engage in torture "by crushing the testicles of the person's child," he answered, "I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that."
Trump insisted that family separation was an unfortunate result of enforcing the law. But those working for him said the goal was to terrify adult foreigners out of coming here in the first place. White House chief of staff John Kelly, who previously served as secretary of homeland security, defended taking kids from their parents because "a big name of the game is deterrence."
Never mind that most of these people come out of stark desperation. Never mind that we have obligations under our laws and treaties to grant refuge to foreigners who are fleeing persecution. Never mind that the majority of those who ask for asylum and are released actually show up for their hearings, negating the need for detention.
Let's not overthink what Trump did. The administration doesn't like undocumented immigrants, whom it wants to shut out completely. It doesn't like legal immigrants, whose numbers it proposes to drastically reduce. It doesn't like refugees and has reduced their admissions by more than half. It doesn't like Muslims, even as tourists.
Its treatment of the families coming across the southern border has been motivated not by a devotion to upholding the law but by hostility to foreigners—at least nonwhite ones.
Remember Trump's idea of sound immigration policy: "We should have more people from places like Norway."
The firm belief of Trump and his supporters is that an influx of refugees from Latin America will bring crime, drugs, and other social ills. But we ran that experiment with Cubans, hundreds of thousands of whom came as refugees in the 1960s and '70s—some because Fidel Castro decided to empty out jails and mental institutions.
How well have they adjusted? Cuban-Americans born in this country generally have higher incomes and more education than the average native. More than half of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for Trump.
The Justice Department adopted a "zero tolerance" policy of arresting everyone entering without a valid visa. That strict approach, it claimed, left it with no choice but to separate children from their parents. It said the alternative—releasing the adults until their court dates—would invite the asylum-seekers to vanish and stay here illegally.
Keeping families in detention together rather than separated is a modest improvement. But there are less harsh options. The organization Human Rights First reports, "Of the individuals who filed for asylum in 2014 and had legal representation, 97 percent of women with children and 98 percent of unaccompanied children were in full compliance with their immigration court appearance obligations as of December 2017."
If you want to prevent these people from absconding, you could provide them with lawyers. You could fit them with ankle bracelets and monitor their whereabouts. You could expand the number of immigration courts to greatly accelerate asylum processing.
You can crack down on unauthorized entrants while avoiding cruelty if you want to. But you have to want to.