Trump's 'zero tolerance' policy can be a political winner for Republicans

Trump's 'zero tolerance' policy can be a political winner for Republicans
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It’s almost as if President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE planned this whole blowup at the border himself.

Yes, there were stories about little kids being ripped from their mothers’ arms after being caught trying to sneak into the country. Yes, there was the Time magazine cover — a little shaky on the details of the photo but effective nonetheless at getting opponents of the president worked up.

And, yes, Trump apparently recognized the reality that having crying children on national TV on a loop was not a political winner and signed an executive order to stop family separations at the border.

But, despite media depictions, he did not capitulate on his “zero-tolerance” policy of seeking criminal prosecution for all those who try to sneak into the country, and he did not cost his party the 2018 midterms over this issue. In fact, he may have strengthened both.


Under current law, when illegal immigrants are put into criminal proceedings or through the adjudication of an asylum claim, the children are held separately. Adults who don’t make a claim of asylum generally are adjudicated and released within a day. Those who seek asylum must wait weeks or even months to learn their fate.

Families with children can stay together for up to 20 days. If it is longer than that, they must be separated because federal law and past court decisions do not allow children to be held in the same detention facilities as adults.

In the past, those who sought asylum were given an ankle monitoring bracelet and released into the mainland. But nearly 40 percent or more of them simply cut off the ankle bracelet and failed to show for their hearing. This was known to the public as “catch and release” and to the people who enforce immigration law as “catch and run.”

What Trump did was end “catch and release” and keep illegal immigrants out of the country until their asylum claims were assessed. He did not back down with his executive order, as media reports suggested. He put forth a temporary solution to battle the electoral optics, Congress is offering legislation to strengthen the EO, and the bill now being hatched may include a provision that could prove a game-changer.

Under language being pushed by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE, adults detained while traveling with children and claiming to be their parents would have to take a DNA test to prove they were related. Many of those caught with children are not their parents but coyotes paid to take them across the border or — worse — human traffickers. They’re less likely to try to sneak unaccompanied children into the country if they can be identified in this way.

This will mean fewer “families” at the border, fewer children “being ripped from the arms of their mothers” and fewer electoral headaches for Republicans.

But it does present some headaches for Democrats.

It has become clear the media ignored the border when President Obama was prosecuting nearly a half-million immigrants in similar fashion and not only separating families in the process but actually putting some people in cages.

It also has become clear that Democratic policies — including and perhaps especially catch and release — not only did not deter people from trying to cross the border illegally; they might have encouraged such behavior.

And it has become abundantly clear that what Democrats want from the border controversy is not what most Americans want.

Indeed, this ordeal has shown us that not only are Democrats unserious about solving illegal immigration, but that their primary interest is effectively fully open borders and the release and amnesty of all currently detained illegal immigrants.

Rather than declare victory after President Trump’s executive order addressed their objections to children being taken from their parents at the border, some Democrats began to claim detaining any illegal immigrants is “a crime against humanity.”

They proposed legislation that would prohibit prosecuting nearly all illegal immigrants who are parents within 100 miles of the border or near a port of entry.

They applauded and encouraged radicals in the street to attack Trump administration officials everywhere they go.  

They’ve given Republicans ample opportunity to regain the narrative on this issue, and Republicans would be fools not to use it because public opinion is overwhelmingly on their side.

According to the latest Economist/YouGov poll, only 19 percent of Americans want to return to catch and release, and more Americans than not — and nearly three-fourths of Republicans — support treating immigration violations as criminal, rather than civil, matters.  Further, immigration will drive more Republicans to the polls than any other issue, according to Gallup, offsetting the supposed enthusiasm gap Democrats are counting on to retake one or both houses of Congress.

Congress almost certainly won’t pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill — one that covers not just the family separation issue but the wall, ending the diversity visa lottery and implementing a merit-based immigration system — before the midterm elections. But it can pass legislation to target the family separation problem and leave the rest to be determined by voters in November.

Despite all of the hysterics coming from the left and the media, Republicans have been presented with a golden opportunity here. If they can pass a skinny bill that protects both Americans and the minors of illegal immigrants, they can regain control of the narrative and show the electorate not only that Democrats don’t care about border security, but that their actual intentions — open borders, release and amnesty for all currently detained illegal immigrants — are well outside the mainstream.

If that happens, this blue wave we’ve been hearing about could become a red tide.

Ford O'Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, an adjunct professor at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, worked on John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Will Trump choose megalomania over country? Trump attacks Meghan McCain and her family MORE's 2008 presidential campaign, and authored the book "Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery." Follow him on Twitter @FordOConnell.