First lady Melania Trump reportedly downplayed the Trump administration’s policy of separating families in immigration detention in a conversation that was secretly recorded in the summer of 2018 by her former friend and senior adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff.
In the recording, which was obtained by CNN, she suggests that the Obama administration had carried out family separations on a comparable scale — which is false.
“Give me a fucking break,” she told Wolkoff, who wrote a book about their decade-long relationship, Melania and Me. “Where they were saying anything when Obama did that?” she said, according to the CNN transcript.
Some families crossing the border really were separated under the Obama administration. But the practice was used in very limited circumstances, such as when officials suspected adults of child trafficking or other fraud. There is no evidence to suggest that the Obama administration separated families in numbers anywhere close to the more than 5,000 that were separated under Trump. It did not have a policy of separating families on a systematic basis, as the Trump administration did.
The first lady also suggests in the recording that the media was treating her as if she were to blame for the policy, and was refusing to do a story about her attempt to reunite one of the affected children with their mother.
“They say I’m complicit. I’m the same like him, I support him. I don’t say enough, I don’t do enough where I am,” she said. “I was trying to get the kid reunited with the mom. I didn’t have a chance — needs to go through the process and through the law.”
In another recording, also obtained by CNN, she claims that many of the migrant families arriving at the southern border have been coached on how to fraudulently obtain asylum.
“A lot of like moms and kids they are teached how to do it. They go over and they say like, ‘Oh, we will be killed by a gang member, we will be, you know, it’s so dangerous,’” Trump said. “So they are allowed to stay here.”
“They could easily stay in Mexico but they don’t want to stay in Mexico because Mexico doesn’t take care of them the same as America does,” she adds.
But there is no evidence suggesting that asylum fraud occurs on a wide scale. The Trump administration has often cited the national asylum grant rate, which is currently about 12 percent, in arguing that most asylum claims are illegitimate, but that’s disingenuous: Being denied asylum says nothing about the credibility of an asylum seeker’s underlying account. Rather, it simply means that an immigration judge has found that they don’t qualify for the specific kind of protection afforded under the law.
The first lady also claims in the recording that migrant children are treated well in the detention centers where they are housed, judging by their reaction when they arrive. But courts and media reports have repeatedly found otherwise, describing cases of children who were forced to sleep on concrete floors with nothing but mylar blankets to keep them warm in holding cells nicknamed “hieleras” — Spanish for “ice boxes” — and who were not given even basic hygiene products, like toothbrushes and soap.
“The kids, they say, ‘Wow I will have my own bed? I will sleep on the bed? I will have a cabinet for my clothes?’ It’s so sad to hear it but they didn’t have that in their own countries, they sleep on the floor,” Trump says on the tape. “They are taken care of nicely there. But you know, yeah, they are not with parents, it’s sad. But when they come here alone or with coyotes or illegally, you know, you need to do something.”
Family separations were largely a product of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy
The Trump administration separated parents from their children as the consequence of a “zero-tolerance” policy meant to deter immigrants from attempting to cross the border without authorization. Beginning in mid-2017, the federal government ran a pilot program in El Paso, Texas, under which it began filing criminal charges against anyone who crossed the border without authorization, including parents with minor children — even though many of them intended to seek asylum in the US.
Parents were sent to immigration detention to await deportation proceedings. Their children, meanwhile, were sent to separate facilities operated by Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and, in some cases, released to other family members in the US or foster homes. (Previous administrations would have simply released the families from detention altogether in most cases.)
The Trump administration formalized the policy in May 2018. At least 5,000 families were separated before a California federal court ordered the federal government in June 2018 to reunify the families affected and end the policy.
The federal government, however, neglected to link the children to their parents in its databases, making the reunification process difficult, especially in the hundreds of cases of children who were under the age of 5, including one who was just four months old.
Unlike the Trump administration, the Obama administration did not have a policy of separating families, but it did try to detain families together on a wide scale and deport them as quickly as possible during the 2014 migrant crisis. Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Obama administration’s Domestic Policy Council, told the New York Times in 2018 that the administration had briefly considered pursuing family separations but quickly dropped the idea.
“We spent five minutes thinking it through and concluded that it was a bad idea,” she told the Times. “The morality of it was clear — that’s not who we are.”
Senior Trump administration officials, including former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, have repeatedly denied that they pursued a policy of family separation. Nielsen told Congress in December 2018 that the administration “never had a policy for family separation.” It was later revealed that she had, in fact, signed a memo greenlighting the practice, which clearly stated that DHS could “permissibly direct the separation of parents or legal guardians and minors held in immigration detention so that the parent or legal guardian can be prosecuted.”
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the administration has tried to carry out what immigrant advocates call a new kind of family separation. This time, it’s pressuring parents already detained within the US to voluntarily separate from their children by presenting them with what the administration has called a “binary choice.” Either allow their children to be placed with relatives or a foster family in the US while the parents remain detained, or stay together as a family in indefinite detention and risk contracting the coronavirus.