National News

How Liberals Got Lost on the Story of Missing Children at the Border

Posted May 31, 2018 3:08 p.m. EDT

Over the weekend, you may have seen a horrifying story: Almost 1,500 migrant children were missing, and feared to be in the hands of human traffickers. The Trump administration lost track of the children, the story went, after separating them from their parents at the border.

The news spread across liberal social media — with the hashtag #Wherearethechildren trending on Twitter — as people demanded immediate action.

But it was not true, or at least not the way that many thought. The narrative had combined parts of two real events and wound up with a horror story that was at least partly a myth.

The fact that so many Americans readily believed this myth offers a lesson in how partisan polarization colors people’s views on a gut emotional level without many even realizing it.

As other articles have explained, the missing children and the Trump administration’s separation of families who are apprehended at the border are two different matters.

The Trump administration does in fact have a new policy of prosecuting all unauthorized border crossers, which involves separating parents from their children. But the 1,475 children whom the Department of Health and Human Services recently reported it cannot locate are not among those taken from their parents. These “missing” children had actually come to the United States without their parents, been picked up by the Border Patrol and then released to the custody of a parent or guardian.

Many probably are not really missing. The figure represents the number of children whose households did not answer the phone when the Department of Health and Human Services called to check on them. The unanswered phone calls may warrant further welfare checks, but are not themselves a sign that something nefarious has happened.

The Obama administration also detained immigrant families and children, as did other recent administrations.

This past weekend, some social media users circulated a photo they said showed children detained as a result of President Donald Trump’s policies, but the image was actually from 2014.

Some waved off this seeming contradiction, saying Trump’s other harsh immigration policies put his administration’s actions in a different context. And it is true that even when using similar tactics, Trump and President Barack Obama have expressed very different attitudes toward immigration and espoused different goals.

Those arguments underscore the degree to which this controversy is animated as much by attitudes toward the president and the way he has made immigration a focus of partisan conflict as by specific policy preferences. Deadlock over immigration has meant that, for decades, politicians have turned to the same compromise: greater enforcement of immigration laws in exchange for more liberal policies. The Reagan administration’s amnesty for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, for instance, also increased security along the Mexican border and made it harder for immigrants living in or entering the country illegally to work. The Obama administration sharply increased deportations in his first term in the hope of building a case for comprehensive immigration reform. (That move did not pay off.)

Detained immigrant children have frequently been caught up in the enforcement side of that bargain. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Immigration and Naturalization Service before it have argued that immigration detention is an essential part of enforcement and deterrence, and have vigorously pursued detention of families and children throughout multiple presidential administrations.

Immigrants’ rights activists have brought a series of lawsuits that challenged and ultimately overturned many detention efforts. But those efforts did not reach the level of national scandal that the Trump administration’s policies have now.

So what has changed? Rising partisan polarization.

Long-running social science surveys have found that since the 1980s, Republicans’ opinions of Democrats and Democrats’ opinions of Republicans have been increasingly negative. At the same time, as Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, writes in a new book, partisan identity has become an umbrella for other important identities, including those involving race, religion, geography and even educational background. It has become a tribal identity itself, not merely a matter of policy preferences.

So it is not that liberals did not care about immigrant children until Trump became president, or that they are only pretending to care now so as to score political points. Rather, with the Trump administration’s making opposition to immigrants a signature issue, the topic has become salient to partisan conflict in a way it was not before.

Trump’s treatment of immigrant families and children, when refracted through the lens of partisan bias, affirms liberals’ perception of being engaged in a broader moral struggle with the right, making it feel like an urgent threat. Obama’s detaining of immigrant children, by contrast, felt like a matter of abstract moral concern.

Identity polarization means “you want to show that you’re a good member of your tribe,” Sean Westwood, a political scientist at Dartmouth College who studies partisan polarization, said in early 2017. “You want to show others that Republicans are bad or Democrats are bad, and your tribe is good.” Sharing stories on social media “provides a unique opportunity to publicly declare to the world what your beliefs are and how willing you are to denigrate the opposition and reinforce your own political candidates,” he said.

Accurate news can serve that purpose. But fake news has an advantage. It can perfectly capture one side’s villainous archetypes of the other, without regard for pesky facts that might not fit the storyline.

The narrative that Trump’s team lost hundreds of children after tearing them away from their parents combines some of the main liberal critiques of the administration: that it is racist, that it is authoritarian and that it is incompetent. The administration’s very real policy of separating families already plays to the first two archetypes. By adding in the missing children, the story manages to incorporate an incompetence angle as well.

The rapid spread of this particular story hints at the longer-term dangers of partisan polarization.

Trump’s harsh immigration policies build on restrictions already in place. But taken together, they add up to a drastic departure from the norms of U.S. politics under other recent administrations, particularly when viewed alongside his statements on immigrants, such as his assertions that many Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and that members of the MS-13 gang are “animals.”

That departure from norms has caused tremendous suffering for immigrants and their communities. On a broader scale, it is revealing that the story of the missing children felt so true to so many people. It shows the ways that shattering norms also damages public trust.

Research shows that the loss of this trust — particularly when combined with extreme polarization — can weaken support for democracy over time. This story’s viral spread suggests that the administration’s treatment of immigrants could have far-reaching consequences for all Americans.