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Trump Administration Has No Idea Whether It Backs Family Separation at the Border

President Trump blames it on the Democrats. Stephen Miller says it was a ‘simple decision.’ Kirstjen Nielsen says the policy doesn’t exist—‘period.’ So which is it?

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

The United States has no policy of separating migrant families at the border. There is such a policy, but it’s all the Democrats’ fault. The policy was a “simple decision,” but one “nobody likes.” The policy is good, legal, and Jesus would approve.

The Trump administration, confronted with increasing public criticism over its immensely unpopular policy of separating migrant children from their families when they cross the U.S. border, has responded to the crisis by taking taking wildly different positions on both the policy itself and the motivation behind it.

Ranging from full-throated endorsement of the decision to separate minor children from their asylum-seeking parents to flat insistence that the decision doesn’t exist, “period,” the public-relations pileup is just a facet of the botched rollout of a policy that separated nearly 2,000 children from their families in its first six weeks.

For nearly a week, President Donald Trump has pointed to congressional Democrats as the root behind his administration’s policy. “I hate the children being taken away,” Trump told reporters on the White House lawn on Friday. “The Democrats have to change their law—that’s their law.”

The president reiterated that (incorrect) statement with a Saturday morning tweet: “Democrats can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!”

But the president’s public insistence that his hands are tied on the matter of family separation at the border isn’t just undermined by the fact that no law requiring family separation exists—it has also been undermined by the head of the government department in charge of its execution.

“We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period,” Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted as part of a defensive thread on the matter on Sunday evening. “For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous Administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between ‘family’ members, or if the adult has broken a law.”

The Department of Homeland Security has been treating people seeking asylum as illegal border crossers, regardless of whether they are entering a port of entry or not.

Nielsen—who reportedly has been deeply conflicted about the policy in private—clearly missed a fiery press conference held by Attorney Jeff Sessions on Monday, in which the longtime immigration hawk said that people who didn’t want to fall victim to the policy shouldn’t try to enter the country.

“If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said at a law enforcement conference. “If you don’t like that, then don't smuggle children over our border.”

Later, Sessions would point to a Bible passage once popular with the Nazis as evidence that the policy was not only good for national security, but in keeping with Christian teachings.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said in a speech on Thursday. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

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Sessions’ endorsement of family separation as both biblically sound and legally necessary stands in contrast to the position taken by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Sunday, when she told NBC’s Meet the Press that “nobody likes seeing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms” and that she found flaws with the policy as a Catholic.

“As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has got a conscience,” Conway said, “I will tell you that nobody likes this policy.”

Except, of course, for its likely architect. Stephen Miller, the White House speechwriter and adviser infamous for crafting the hastily written and legally disastrous ban on travel to the United States from citizens of seven (later six) primarily Muslim nations, was reportedly the driving force behind the family separation policy and has defended it like it was his own, non-migrant child.

“No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” Miller told The New York Times. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”

Whatever the Trump administration’s views of the policy, the American people are in agreement on the matter. According to a new Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for The Daily Beast, only 27 percent of respondents agree that it is “appropriate to separate undocumented immigrant parents from their children when they cross the border in order to discourage others from crossing the border illegally.”

Among the 56 percent of those who disagree with the policy? First lady Melania Trump.

According to Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokesperson, Trump “hates to see children separated from their families.”