Political News

The sounds of separation -- how 8 minutes of audio changed the immigration debate

Posted June 22, 2018 2:10 p.m. EDT
Updated June 22, 2018 6:32 p.m. EDT

— The sounds are unmistakable: Children sobbing. Hard. Begging to be allowed to see their parents, their aunt, a relative. And then crying again when told that isn't possible.

The nearly eight minutes of audio -- capturing conversations between children separated from their parents and border patrol workers and published by Pro Publica -- is difficult to listen to. It's heart-wrenching. It's tear-inducing. And, within the space of five days, those children have become the face -- or, rather, the voice -- of the border separation crisis and the Trump administration's botched handling of it.

On Friday, Democratic California Rep. Ted Lieu played the audio on the House floor. He was asked to stop by Rep. Karen Handel, a Georgia Republican, who was presiding over the House floor at that moment. He didn't stop. (You can watch the whole thing here.)

Earlier in the week, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez did the same thing -- playing the audio on the floor of the world's greatest deliberative body. Protestors played the audio outside of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's house. New York magazine reporter Olivia Nuzzi played the audio during White House press secretary Sarah Sanders' daily briefing.

It became the soundtrack of the week in politics -- and in the culture more broadly. The terrified cries and wails of the children bored into you, made it impossible for you to ignore their plight -- and the policy that led them to such a sad state.

The eight minutes of audio more than anything else -- even the now-controversial photo of a young girl crying -- came to define the human face (or voice) behind this policy change by the Trump administration.

And the power of those crying kids is something that President Donald Trump and his team clearly didn't plan for. Trump, earlier in the week, insisted a) he was sticking by the "zero-tolerance" policy because it was the only way to toughen the borders and b) he lacked the power to change the policy. (That second part was not true -- then or now.)

Within 48 hours -- as the audio was played and replayed hourly on cable TV -- Trump, ever the pragmatist, realized he was fighting a battle he couldn't hope to win. No matter how much his base loves his tough-guy act on the border, the sounds of little children crying for their parents was winning out. So he reversed course -- signing an executive order that allows kids to be detained alongside their parents for more than 20 days. (The legal prospects of Trump's executive order are dicey.)

The whole episode is a reminder of how dry policy crafted in some conservative (or liberal) think tank crumbles when faced with audio or video that speaks to the common human emotions we all share.

What the audio reminds us is this: At root, the most important part of this border story isn't the parents trying to enter the country illegally. (That's not to say that doesn't matter; it does.) It's the children -- blameless in all of this -- who are being separated from their parents and, in some cases, flown to other states where they are even more isolated and alone.

No one -- not even the hardest of the immigration hardliners -- can listen to the audio of the young kids crying and not be reminded that they are the real victims here, and the ones who really need our protection.