clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sarah Sanders on immigrant family separation: “It is very biblical to enforce the law”

Jeff Sessions said separating immigrant children and parents is rooted in the Bible. Sanders agreed. 

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

A White House briefing with press secretary Sarah Sanders grew tense on Thursday as reporters pressed her on the matter of the Trump administration’s family separation policy for asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. Sanders upheld the practice as a matter of law and defended Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s assertion that separating immigrant children from their parents is in line with the Bible.

During a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, earlier in the day, Sessions said that his department’s separation of migrant families was not “unusual or unjustified” but instead a matter of law — Christian law, in fact. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. 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, according to NBC News. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Sanders during Thursday’s White House press briefing what Sessions was talking about. She said she wasn’t “aware” of the attorney general’s comments or “what he was referencing” but sided with him on the “it’s what the Bible says” part.

“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law,” Sanders said. “That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”

Acosta pushed back at her assertion, to which Sanders replied testily, “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess.”

She then took the line of argument that President Donald Trump and the White House often push — that this is what the law says (it isn’t) and it’s Democrats’ fault (it’s not). “The separation of alien families is the product of the same legal loopholes that Democrats refuse to close, and these laws are the same that have been on the books for over a decade. The president is simply enforcing the law,” she said.

When Acosta asked whether she believes the practice is moral, Sanders replied, “It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law.”

Family separation isn’t the law

The Trump administration has recently implemented a policy of separating children from their parents as they attempt to enter the United States seeking asylum at the US border. They’re typically splitting up families by charging parents with illegal entry into the US and sending them into criminal custody and treating their children as if they were “unaccompanied alien children” who had tried to enter the United States alone.

The policy has sent shock waves across the country, igniting outrage on the part of immigration advocates, human rights groups, and citizens across the political spectrum. Multiple reports of uniquely aggressive or inhumane treatment have added fuel to the fire, including a Honduran man who died by suicide less than a day after being separated from his wife and 3-year-old child by Border Patrol agents, and a Honduran woman who says officials took her daughter away while she was breastfeeding her in a detention center.

The White House is arguing that what it’s doing is just what the legal code says. “We’re a country of law and order, and we’re enforcing the law and protecting our borders,” Sanders said.

Except that’s not the case. As Vox’s Dara Lind points out, there is no law that requires immigrant families to be separated:

The decision to charge everyone crossing the border with illegal entry — and the decision to charge asylum seekers in criminal court rather than waiting to see if they qualify for asylum — are both decisions the Trump administration has made.

Other administration officials back up Trump by pointing to the laws that give extra protections to families, unaccompanied children, and asylum seekers. The administration has been asking Congress to change these laws since it came into office, and has blamed them for stopping Trump from securing the border the way he’d like. (Those aren’t “Democratic laws” either; the law addressing unaccompanied children was passed overwhelmingly in 2008 and signed by George W. Bush, while the restriction on detaining families is a result of federal litigation.)

In that context, the law isn’t forcing Trump to separate families; it’s keeping Trump from doing what he’d perhaps really like to do, which is simply sending families back or keeping them in detention together, and so he has had to resort to plan B.

Brian Karem, the White House correspondent for Playboy Magazine, on Thursday got into an even more heated argument with Sanders and admonished her for defending the administration’s position. “You’re a parent,” he told Sanders, a mother of three, asking if she could seriously argue the White House was right. “I’m trying to be serious, but I’m not going to have you yell out of turn,” she retorted.

CBS News reported on Wednesday that Sanders has told friends she plans to leave the administration by the end of the year. Sanders denied the report on Twitter on Wednesday and in Thursday’s briefing, but her fatigue with the situation was apparent.

“In terms of personnel announcements, I don’t have any to make,” she told reporters. “I can tell you that I show up here every day, I love my job, I’m glad to work for the president, and each and every day, I’ll pray for clarity and discernment on what my future looks like.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.