Over the past weekend, thousands marched in Washington, D.C. and in cities across the country to protest the separation of illegal immigrant families detained at the border under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
I’m with the protesters. I want secure borders, but don’t want to see young children torn from their parents. I don’t care if they’re legal or illegal. There has to be a better way. Most Americans feel this way. It’s heartbreaking.
But it was also heartbreaking when President Obama did it, even if to a lesser or simply unknown degree. It’s outrageous that the Obama administration once placed children with human traffickers. It’s un-American that the last administration wanted to indefinitely detain illegal immigrants.
If you read the widespread reports of abuse suffered by detained minors alleged to have occurred in some illegal immigrant detention centers under both Presidents Obama and Trump, most are arguably even more horrifying than family separation. Consider the reign of terror Obama visited on the Latino community that earned him the name “deporter-in-chief” by immigrant advocate groups who pleaded with the president to “stop tearing families apart.”
These examples should move anyone on a basic human level, left or right (some of the language from conservatives, frankly, about the separated children is not befitting of anyone claiming to be pro-life), and we could probably even find photos to ignite public passion for each, similar to the family separation tragedy.
Yet, I don’t remember any marches protesting U.S. immigration policy on Obama’s watch. In fact, when was the last time the left organized these kinds of mass marches, pre-Trump?
We all remember.
The 2003 global protests against the Iraq war were some of the largest rallies in history. “Bush lied, people died!” was the mantra, as the entire left mobilized against Republican President George W. Bush whose reckless foreign policy would destabilize the Middle East and lead to the unnecessary deaths of so many.
I agreed with those protesters too. As a Pat Buchanan-supporting antiwar conservative at the time, I understood that the Iraq War would go down as one of the worst foreign policy debacles in American history. It’s hard to forget the horrific photos of innocent civilian casualties, including children. How could one’s heart not go out to them?
In that vein, how could one’s heart not go out to the 16-year-old American boy intentionally targeted and killed by a U.S. drone under the Obama administration? How could any leftist in good conscience ignore that Obama expanded Bush’s controversial covert drone program ten-fold? How could anyone who once marched against U.S.-led regime change in Iraq ignore when Obama pursued the same policy in Libya? (President Obama would later call it his “worst mistake”). How could any progressive who once held up the Patriot Act as evidence of Bush’s unconstitutional tyranny ignore that Obama significantly built upon that too, particularly with his mass surveillance programs? How could any liberal ignore that in many, and perhaps different, ways, Obama was just as much a war president as Bush? What about the many child casualties under Obama?
The moral outrage over U.S. foreign policy that defined the left through the Bush years evaporated once a Democratic president began continuing and even expanding the same policies. Trump’s immigration policies that the left now protests so vigorously had plenty of precedent in the Obama administration, though Trump’s “zero tolerance” has unquestionably increased family separations.
This sort of selective moral outrage is by no means confined to the left. The Tea Party movement that defined the grassroots right not that long ago was almost entirely focused on battling reckless government spending and particularly the national debt. Now many of those same people are the strongest boosters of Trump—who is ramping up the national debt to levels not seen since World War II.
If you ask some former Tea Party-turned Trump supporters about this, many will say that he’s doing good things in other areas so it’s okay. It’s complicated, you know?
Similarly, the usual answer from my friends on the left when I bring up contradictions about Obama is that somehow his immigration and foreign policy sins were different in kind, or that the situation is more complex than I’m acknowledging.
Of course immigration and foreign policy issues are complicated, as are fiscal issues and most others. But that’s not how moral outrage works. You find—and simplify—an issue around which to rally the troops, whether it’s the plight of illegal immigrant children, the horrors of war, or saddling future generations with immeasurable debt.
Some might chalk my examples of hypocrisy here as just more whataboutism, and perhaps that’s true. But they also show how partisanship can make protests less effective because activists have will inevitably always have less credibility with the minds they seek to change.
That most liberals today, with plenty of justification, don’t take the Tea Party remotely seriously (not that they ever did) given their support of Trump who now outspends Obama, is understandable. In the same light, that so many on the right scoff at those protesting Trump’s immigration policies is understandable given the pass Obama always received on the issue.
And again, these issues can be complex. While I want to end family separation, I also don’t want completely lawless borders. I don’t want to encourage people, particularly bad people, to bring children with them when trying to enter the U.S. illegally. I also wouldn’t want kids to potentially share detainment facilities with adults who could be violent criminals (this could be an exaggerated threat, but it’s not an unreasonable concern). We have a separate juvenile correctional system in the U.S. largely for this reason.
I’m glad President Trump signed an executive order ending further family separation. I hope he does something about the many families still separated. If he does, public pressure will no doubt play a role toward potentially forcing his hand.
But such pressure could be more effectively exerted if these outcries appeared more principled than partisan. If activists left or right care truly about these various causes, they should be more consistent in their positions.
Especially when children are involved.