The “cage” fight is just one of a series of Orwellian deployments of language from the White House recently. On Sunday, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen railed against “misreporting by Members [of Congress], press & advocacy groups” and tweeted:
This is violence to the English language. The claim is that the policy is aimed at adults, not at children, but the effect is the same. In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the government would charge anyone entering the country illegally with a crime. Under the Flores agreement, a 1997 legal settlement, the federal government must hold children in the least restrictive setting possible. That means the government can’t imprison children alongside their parents.
The administration knew full well that the result would be separations. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said in May. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly also said in May that the goal was to dissuade unauthorized immigrants from entering. “The laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence,” he told NPR. “It could be a tough deterrent—would be a tough deterrent.”
Nielsen’s words are at odds with her colleagues’ in the administration. They’re even at odds with her own. By Monday, she was defending the same policy she claimed didn’t exist, saying in New Orleans, “It’s important to understand that these minors are very well taken care of. Don’t believe the press.”
President Trump, meanwhile, continues to claim that the separations are somehow Democrats’ fault, even though Democrats do not control either house of Congress, the separations began only last month, and his claim has been repeatedly debunked. Trump continues to insist that he dislikes the policy and continues to blame his opponents, even though he could reverse the policy himself.
In a similar vein, first lady Melania Trump issued a statement Sunday that garnered a lot of attention as a criticism of the policy.
“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” a spokeswoman said. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
This, too, plays games with the truth, suggesting that the reason for the policy is that both parties won’t simply come together to pass immigration reform. But the battle in Congress over reform right now is mostly within the Republican Party, as moderates, conservatives, and leadership in the House fight over how to proceed on immigration.
In theory, the falsehoods in these statements ought to be plain—the representations by Donald and Melania Trump and Nielsen are simply wrong, while Sessions and Kelly are more honest, if politically reckless, in their comments. But the contradictions among high-level officials don’t bother the White House, which aims to stir up confusion rather than debate an issue it’s likely to lose. Hence the Surrealist proposition of the moment: Ceci n’est pas une cage.