For Democrats, like the ‘insurrection’ of January 6th, the Trump policy of separating illegal-immigrant parents from their children in 2018 has been the political gift that’s kept on giving ever since. In 2020, the conspicuously inhumane protocol provided a rallying cry for candidates in the primaries and later for Biden as nominee.
True, the policy did have a rationale beyond sheer sadism. American law restricts the number of days border agents may detain the underaged and likewise constrains children’s deportation. As migrants are better versed on American immigration statutes than most lawyers, savvy incomers (meaning most incomers) were rocking up on US soil with kids in tow — not always their own — as guarantees of release from custody, leaving them in the country home-free. If children were dealt with independently, at least the parents could be sent packing.
Never mind its moral dubiety; family separation was a political catastrophe. Although minors were confined by the same chain-link that encloses basketball and tennis courts, the Dems’ incessant charge that Trump put ‘children in cages’ entailed inspired branding. Detention facilities are for people; cages are for animals. Trump chucked his ‘zero-tolerance’ policy of May 2018 by June, but the damage was done. For years, the New York Times and PBS Newshour continued to run long packages about traumatised immigrant children and their enduring mental health problems. For voters in both parties, the spectacle of lonely, runny-nosed four-year-olds whimpering in bewilderment over why they’d been abandoned triggered harrowing early memories of getting parted from a parent at an amusement park and crying: ‘Mo-omm-eee!’
One would think that when the opposition bestows you with such an invaluable present — boxed, wrapped in shiny foil and beribboned with a bow — you wouldn’t smash it up, much less give it back.
Last week’s leaked news about the suit settlements being negotiated between the Biden administration and previously separated families — some represented by the American Civil Liberties Union — was the best thing to happen to Fox commentator Tucker Carlson for years. The final figures are still uncertain, but it’s mooted that individuals suffering psychological harm from Trump’s family separation are in line for $450,000 apiece. Families could average compensation of $1 million. With 5,500 children estimated to have been affected, the total payout could easily exceed $1 billion. The ACLU is demanding not just roughly $3.4 million per family instead, but also a path to citizenship, while the Biden team is more likely to offer a three-year parole, during which plaintiffs could legally live and work in the US. But never mind the technicalities. Guests of the nation tooling around in Mercedes-AMGs with heated seats would never be deported.
Most Americans don’t fancy rewarding the violation of their laws on such a scale. Practically, too, they recognise that headlines about thousands of illegal immigrants winning such an eye-popping lottery jackpot would act as a further come-hither for millions more foreigners with itchy feet. The US already entices incomers with higher wages, government benefits and a sunnier future for offspring. Now maybe you’ll get lucky and the border patrol will do or say something disagreeable. Presto, the great and the good at the ACLU will make you a millionaire.
Accordingly, in response to this story, Fox News hosts have been falling over themselves to top one another’s indignation. But they don’t really look indignant. They look so happy they could weep. In the Wall Street Journal, the news report ‘US in talks to pay hundreds of millions to families separated at border’ immediately hit the most-popular list at no. 1.
It was already a contest whether the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan or the accelerating free-for-all at America’s southern border qualifies as the bigger black eye for Biden; this latest media godsend for Republicans may shift the balance towards the latter. Readers of this column will hardly be surprised that I advocate controlled immigration, so the prospect of dangling a piñata bursting with more than $1 billion on the American side of the Rio Grande obviously causes me some distress. The stampede to America’s south could soon make the New York City marathon look like a knitting circle power-walking around Gramercy Park. But readers should also know by now that I revile Trump. So my distress is increasingly focused on the big picture.
Such an obscenely generous settlement wouldn’t only amount to an excessive reward for breaking American laws; it would also re-gift the Dems’ PR advantage to Donald Trump. And this is a story that fires up a wider swath of the public than his minority base, including the independents who swing elections.
No sooner is the last presidential contest over than, like most Americans, I’m eyeing the next one. In my broadly shared dread that Republicans will nominate you-know-who yet again, I sometimes postulate desperately that maybe we’ll all be saved by a deus ex machina, and the previous poser in the White House will be struck by some debilitating ailment. I’d settle for incurable laryngitis. Or maybe the guy could break out in hard, goitrous globules of insoluble lard. After all, when the supermodel Linda Evangelista had this adverse reaction to a fat-freezing procedure, she became a shut-in! Yeah, yeah. I did say I was desperate. And for a novelist, resorting to divine intervention constitutes piss-poor plotting.
The thing is, I’m not the first to suppose that Biden, who just referred to Glasgow’s climate conference as ‘the G-26’, might serve only one term. Nor am I the only one who considers America’s vice-president an incompetent dolt who harbours no genuine political convictions, emits a compulsive, mirthless cackle under stress and only achieved her office by dint of sex, ethnicity and race. (Let’s reserve ‘Veep: couldn’t we at least have elected Julia Louis-Dreyfus?’ for future discussion.) Maybe something will indeed come out of left field, and I won’t have to face it. But right now I’m looking in wide-eyed horror at Kamala vs the Donald in 2024, as if standing mid-motorway with the two headlights of an HGV barrelling towards me and not being able to move.