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Jeff Sessions cited a Bible passage used by American slaveholders to defend Trump’s family separation policy

It’s rarely been used since the Civil War.

Jeff Sessions Delivers Remarks At Training Conference For Immigration Judges
Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens as he is introduced during the Justice Department’s executive officer for immigration review annual legal training program on June 11, 2018, at the Sheraton Tysons Hotel in Tysons, Virginia.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
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.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s family separation policy for asylum seekers by invoking a controversial passage in the Bible that’s rarely been cited since the Civil War because it was used by Southerners to defend slavery.

This is what Sessions said at a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Thursday, according to NBC News:

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. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.

The historical context spread across Twitter. Yoni Appelbaum, a historian and editor at the Atlantic, showed the passage was cited during key moments in the American debate over slavery:

The Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer and Keith McMillan spoke with experts for a piece that ran Friday morning and concluded that Sessions’s decision to cite Romans 13 is an unusual one, given how the passage has been used historically.

“This is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made,” John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told the Post.

Abolitionists argued that slavery was unconscionably cruel and pointed, specifically, to separating families as a violation of religious principles, Appelbaum explained. Slavery defenders said the duty to abide by law was part of the Bible and specifically cited Romans 13. Abolitionists, ultimately, won the argument over slavery.

Fea told the Post that after the Civil War, there haven’t been as many references to Romans 13 because the passage’s message about submitting to authority is regarded as un-American. “Whenever Romans 13 was used in the 18th and 19th century — and Sessions seems to be doing the same thing, so in this sense there is some continuity — it’s a way of manipulating the scriptures to justify your own political agenda,” Fea said.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the same “the Bible says follow the law” argument on Thursday

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Thursday was asked about Sessions’s invocation of the Bible to defend the administration’s family separation policy. She said she wasn’t “aware” of the attorney general’s specific comments but sided with him on the Bible 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.”

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

President Donald Trump in a surprise appearance on Fox & Friends on Friday defended the policy as well, but he didn’t mention the Bible. “That’s the law,” he said.

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.