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Nearly 2,000 immigrant children have been separated from their families at the southern U.S. border, according to the federal government. As The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur wrote, the wave of news stories about those separations has prompted a “national moral reckoning” over the Trump administration’s hard line on immigration. Reports describe children being held in cages and reveal audio of the cries of children in detention facilities. How did we get here, and how likely is it to stop? We asked Krishnadev for his analysis, and turned to Atlantic archives for a historical perspective.

“It Is Very Hard to Predict What Is Going to Happen”

A reporter walks us through what he knows—and doesn’t know—about the separation of migrant families.

Caroline Kitchener: When did the administration begin separating children from their families at the border?

Krishnadev Calamur: As Trump came into office in January 2017, John Kelly, secretary of homeland security at the time, wanted to start the zero-tolerance policy, but was deterred from pursuing it. But Stephen Miller, senior policy advisor to the president, persisted with the idea. This summer, when the number of illegal crossings spiked (as it always does at this time of year), he brought the idea up again. Six weeks ago, the administration implemented this policy.

Caroline: The issue came into sharp focus again over the weekend, as disturbing photos and reporters’ first-hand accounts of the heartbreaking separations trickled out of the detention facilities. Several high-profile conservatives also spoke out against the policy. Can you tell us a little more about what’s been happening over the last couple of days?

Krishnadev: This weekend was Father’s Day. Many Democratic lawmakers and opponents of the administration’s policy gathered outside detention facilities in New Jersey, Texas, and other places, protesting against it. On top of that, Laura Bush, the former first lady, who doesn’t typically weigh in on policy issues, published an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which she called it “cruel” and “immoral” to separate children from their families. She compared the policy to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Caroline: In a tweet over the weekend, Kirstjen Nielsen, current secretary of homeland security, denied that the Trump administration has a policy to separate the children of people entering the country illegally from their families. What do you make of that?

Krishnadev: While Nielsen did say that, there are many, many reports that the administration is, in fact, separating children from their parents. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 1,995 kids have now been separated from their families.

I think Nielsen is able to make this claim because she is distinguishing between asylum seekers and other people who come in. She’s making the case that asylum seekers are not being separated from their families; the people who are being separated are being prosecuted for crossing the border illegally. Still, it’s clear what the administration is trying to do. In an interview with the New York Times, Stephen Miller said they are using this policy to deter people from coming in. They will tell you that they are enforcing laws that are already “on the books,” which have existed since the 90’s.

Caroline: What are those laws?

Krishnadev: One is the 1997 Flores Amendment. Essentially, it allows children to be separated from their parents for a certain amount of time. There was another law passed in 2008 with bipartisan support, on child trafficking, which incorporates some elements of this. Neither the Obama administration nor the Bush administration enforced this aspect of either law—the separation of the children from their parents. Both of them apparently considered it, but thought it would be too inhumane.

Caroline: There has been some backlash to the policy from the right. Who still supports the president?

Krishnadev: There are many people who agree with Trump on this—who believe there should be zero tolerance for people crossing the border illegally. On the other side of the equation, you have some moderate Republicans like Jeff Flake, and evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham who have come out very strongly against this policy. You’ll see fewer elected Republicans who have a political future saying anything detrimental, because Trump is still very popular among his supporter base—and, as we have seen in primary after primary, if you cross the president, you will pay a political price for it.

Caroline: Do you think this policy is likely to change anytime soon?

Krishnadev: It is very hard to predict what is going to happen. All it takes is one event to change the equation one way or another. If tomorrow, there is some high-profile crime, and it’s revealed that a migrant carried it out, that could change the reaction to this. If it’s revealed that this new policy has drastically reduced the number of people coming into the country, that could change the reaction to this. The president is a very shrewd politician. He recognizes that these are the kinds of issues that get his base mobilized. That said, these are also the kinds of issues that mobilize his rivals.

Caroline: Will this policy actually deter people considering immigrating to the U.S. illegally?

Krishnadev: Whether they make the trip for economic opportunities, or to escape crime, domestic abuse, or political strife, many people are quite willing to risk their lives and the lives of their children to come to America. They do it for a reason. And I’m not sure that this kind of policy, however draconian it might seem to us, would actually deter people from coming to the United States.

American Anxiety Over Immigration: A Brief History

Karen Yuan writes on how, for decades, writers in The Atlantic have examined the nation’s sentiment toward immigration.

  • In 1896, thousands of immigrants were arriving at Ellis Island. The economist Francis A. Walker, reflecting the anxiety of a swath of Americans, worried over “protecting the American rate of wages, the American standard of living, and the quality of American citizenship from degradation through the tumultuous access of vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry from the countries of eastern and southern Europe.” He cited familiar economic and national security concerns over the “millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews,” and prescribed a moratorium on America’s intake of immigrants.

  • Nearly a century later, in 1983, Atlantic national correspondent Jim Fallows described how “the alarm bells [began] to ring” as “liberals and conservatives alike have [warned] about the implications” of a renewed influx of immigrants, particularly from Central America and southeast Asia. Earlier that year, the U.S. attorney general, William French Smith, said, "Simply put, we've lost control of our own borders." Jim pushed back on the national sentiment and advocated immigration’s societal benefits. “A sane immigration policy would continue the emphasis on reuniting immediate families,” he wrote, but added that extended families might not be owed the same immigration rights.

  • In 1994, the journalist Roy Beck visited Wausau, Wisconsin, which had welcomed Hmong refugees to settle in its small community. He found it “overwhelmed” by its new residents, and cited gang violence, racial tension, and a ballooning population of ESL students in under-resourced schools. Beck raised the argument for a “cooling-off period” in Wausau immigration, which could aid with “social healing.” The town was his study in the potential negative effects of rising immigration trends across the country. Beck went on to found NumbersUSA, a nonprofit that urged limits on immigration. Before Trump’s election, wrote The Washington Post, Beck had been “marginalized in Washington as an eccentric figure whose views some consider xenophobic or even racist.”

  • The same year, the author Jack Miles examined an instance of border patrol reform: The El Paso, California, Border Patrol had begun a redeployment of the patrol’s agents, sending the majority of its agents to stand watch along the border while de-emphasizing the pursuit of immigrants who had already crossed the border. The new strategy was successfully slowing illegal immigration in the area. Miles stated that “backlash [against immigration] is ultimately against a perceived and frightening loss of control, rather than against Mexicans as a racial or ethnic group." This new, nonviolent border patrol strategy, he continued, could be “a restoration of control” without entailing “a level of brutal militarization that would appall the nation and the world.”

  • Over twenty years after the publication of Roy Beck’s foreboding look into immigration, the writer Doualy Xaykaothao revisited Wausau, Wisconsin, and found a town in which Hmong American families appeared mostly integrated. The gangs were long gone, and the county administrator told Xaykaothao that he was “embarrassed” about past “untrue and harmful” statements about Hmong refugees. But in 2015, racial tensions flared again after a violent fight between two teenage boys, one white American and one Hmong American, resulted in the former’s death and the latter’s conviction by an all-white jury. Local news reports described the fight’s “gang-related undertones.” “Race is still very much an issue in Wausau,” Xaykaothao concluded.

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