John Oliver Shows Why We Absolutely Need to Keep Talking About Family Separation on Last Week Tonight
The main story on yesterday’s Last Week Tonight focused on immigration in response to Trump declaring his plans to send soldiers to the United States border and barbed wire to keep asylum seekers out. “Trump has made it a centerpiece of his closing argument heading into the midterms,” says host John Oliver, to a clip of Trump calling the group an “invasion” full of men and who will attack American women. “That is such old-timey racism I’m genuinely amazed that image didn’t automatically turn black and white as he talked,” says Oliver, “like Pleasantville in reverse.”
Another promise Trump has blurted out is his plans to end birthright citizenship, which the host points out is something the President might not be able to do. So, instead, the episode focuses on Trump’s zero-tolerance policy to unpack what he has, and may continue to do. “I thought it might be useful to look backwards at something he absolutely did do concerning immigrants: family separation.”
The story has mostly faded from the headlines, but Oliver points out “it is really worth revisiting because a number of government reports recently came out giving us a much clearer picture of what was actually happening. And while it seemed malicious and chaotic at the time, at every step it was even worse than you might assume.”
How? The host goes through the Health and Human Services Secretary’s assurance that there was nothing to be worried about, which greatly contradicts a review from the Office of Inspector General which showed the system was very vulnerable to losing children. “You shouldn’t be able to lose children in a government system as easily as in a Chuck-E-Cheese ball pit”, says Oliver. “I’m sorry we’re gonna have to call off the search Mrs. Donaldson—Ralphie’s loss to the balls now.”
There are a lot of really, really grueling accounts: 14 more children added to the tally of separated children just two weeks ago, children as young as one or two, a mother given the wrong baby. “To put it mildly, when it comes to ‘How did we do this?'” says the host, “the answer seems to be incompetently and cruelly.” And why? Because the administration kept insisting they had “no choice” but to resort to these measures when people weren’t immigrating “the right way.”
“A few things there regarding ‘the right way'”, says Oliver. “Because first many of these people were applying for asylum: meaning they’re seeking protection from persecution and under international and US law it is legal to apply for that no matter how you enter the country. Second, while the Trump administration insisted that the ‘right way’ for asylum seekers to come in was through a port of entry, like an official border crossing—they made it far more difficult to do that, with many being repeatedly denied entry into the country and forced to wait days or even weeks. You can’t just arbitrarily delay people that long—they are asylum seekers looking for safety no AT&T customers trying to speak to a representative.”
There a lot more to the segment: the 99.3% error Trump makes when talking about what he calls “catch and release”, the case management program started during the Obama administration, the fact that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born here, anti-immigrant ads—but the most troubling bit of this story is a clip Oliver plays from The Atlantic‘s “How Family Separation Traumatized Children”. A huge, huge warning: it is a very rough watch of a six-year-old boy named Jenri from Honduras crying as his family tries to cope with the trauma of separation. There’s no joke, no humorous comment for the fact that “the reality of it is fucking heartbreaking.” It is nothing short of shattering.
“Yeah, we did that”, says Oliver. “And not because we had to. We chose to. And horrifically, we may actually be about to do it again.” Both Trump and the head of ICE are beginning to suggest that family separation is a necessary evil. But it’s not, and the militaristic rhetoric is hugely misleading.
“We don’t! We don’t have to do any of this!” exclaims the host. “Because even though the language of war is being used, there is not a war. And the only reason people keep talking like there is one, is to give themselves permission to make choices they want to be forced to make. But family separation cannot be one of them.”
If Trump is going to make this election about immigration, Oliver says, “then fine, let’s make it about that.” He notes that family separation is perhaps the “most emblematic moment of his presidency so far—it was cruel, sloppy, needless, racist, and ultimately, exactly what we should have expected.” He concludes that the biggest threat to our country is not a caravan, but “it’s whoever thinks that doing this [pointing to a photo of Jenri] is an acceptable-fucking-response.”
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