Against the nauseating backdrop of human misery and calculating cruelty that comprised the now-notorious 2018 zero tolerance policy more often known as family separation, there was dark comedy in watching “family-loving” conservatives and a growing web of right-wing influencers twist themselves into pretzels defending the barbarism against families being carried out by their new king and his underlings.
The policy—sketched up by the Mozart of xenophobic restrictionism, Stephen Miller; refined by his former boss, Dixie goblin Jeff Sessions; and signed off on by the brutish Donald Trump—referred all border crossers for criminal prosecution under relatively little-used federal statutes. The explicit goal was to dissuade further migration by forcing the separation of parents from children, who couldn’t join them in criminal custody.
As stories poured in of crying infants literally torn from their parents’ arms by jackbooted thugs with American flag patches on their sleeves, the right-wing commentariat and high-level officials who had spent months baying for blood at the border suddenly short-circuited. It was too inhumane, there was too immediate and widespread a backlash, and they were suddenly on their heels, forced to admit that, yes, migrants actually are people, and maybe this policy went too far.
Yet they also couldn’t cede too much ground, or they risked setting the precedent that these migrants’ human rights had to be respected. So they settled on the guilt-deflecting framing of: this is horrible, but these people have brought it on themselves. You made us do this, Republicans mewled. Perhaps most infamously, Sessions quoted the Bible while defending the policy, saying, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
It was an absurd and contemptible dodge, which is why it’s especially repellent that I now find myself looking back to this moment wistfully. Things have shifted in the intervening years. The heightened militancy of the extreme right, driven by its conspiratorial agitation during the Covid pandemic and the antidemocratic inflection point of its attempt to negate the 2020 presidential election (a delirium so widely held that it’s practically part of the Republican Party platform at this stage), has driven even mainstream pundits on the right to jettison any semblance of empathy toward immigrants.
That became especially clear earlier this month, as the country was plunged into a baby formula shortage that threatened the health of millions of infants. There were many culprits here: an economic system that allowed a handful of companies to control production of a crucial good; the everyone-for-themselves culture that led people to bulk-buy more formula than they needed as shortages loomed; even Trump himself, whose renegotiated North American trade discouraged importing formula. Yet the reprobates knew instantly who to blame: brown migrant babies, who were daring to drink their formula while in U.S. government custody. The controversy was ignited by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who’s made it a hobby to embarrass himself with ill-advised border enforcement cosplay, and was embraced by the ghouls at Fox News, who pushed the formula issue for days on primetime. “American families, there’s a shortage, but if you’re a migrant, don’t worry, because Uncle Sam has a stash of that,” said host Steve Doocy during a representative segment.
Cadres of sensible moderates went on TV or took to opinion pages to point out that the volume of migrant families and infants in government custody at any given time is so minuscule as to not even remotely impact the ubiquitous shortages—as if that was what this was really about. They treated these recriminations as a simple continuation of the victim-blaming that characterized the right wing’s response to family separation, but that analysis misses something basic: in the right’s telling, children aren’t defenseless victims of their parents’ bad choices or caught in the crossfire of a lawless border or whatever, they are parasites actively consuming what rightfully belongs to U.S. babies, and the government should leave them to die.
However Abbott and Fox News want to slice it, when they rail about migrant children being fed formula (in the same breath that they declare themselves pro-life absolutists), they’re demanding the government stop doing so, which is just another way of demanding that the government kill babies through callous and deliberate negligence. What they want is for a large segment of the population and political apparatus to see desperate kids as barely above leeches and openly clamor for us to starve them in a purely symbolic gesture. In the four years since family separation, they’ve managed to break through one of the few remaining bulwarks to their blood thirst: the universal reverence for the innocence of children and the impulse to protect them. I don’t think we are going back.
In fact, it’s not incidental that it’s babies specifically now being seen as a threat. People like the Buffalo shooter, a teenager who killed ten people and injured several others at a grocery store in a predominantly Black part of the city this month, have certainly internalized the lesson of the infant as the enemy. In his online ramblings, the shooter parroted almost word-for-word the fretting over birth rates and the so-called great replacement theory—which holds that there is an intentional effort to replace “true” (read: white) Americans with lowly immigrants and their progeny—that has been pushed by right-wing commentators, including the popular TV host and brazen white supremacist Tucker Carlson.
Parallel to outrage-mongering over formula going to detained migrant children is the explosion of feigned concern over the fate of cisgender, heterosexual, white children, who are painted as under threat from the deviancy of sinister educators ready to sexually groom them by so much as acknowledging that LGBTQ people exist, or warp their minds with dangerous lessons about this country’s fundamentally racist and exploitative national history (not to mention present). No less than third-ranking GOP House member Elise Stefanik threw around the term “pedo grifters” in a tweet about formula going to migrant children. That’s because, in their view, all of this is related. It’s about our children at risk, and their children as peril. As Abbott put it in his initial statement on the formula shortage, “Children are our most vulnerable, precious Texans and deserve to be put first.” Those in custody, apparently, are not children, nor did Abott’s virtue signaling seem to overtake the imperative to continue worshipping at the altar of gun culture while schoolchildren in Uvalde were slaughtered in their classrooms.
We don’t need to look too deeply into history to imagine what we risk when swaths of a population begin to think of undesirable infants as practically vermin that need to be dealt with, and their own offspring as living under a shadowy and persistent threat. At this point, it’s irrelevant if those pushing this line are true believers or opportunists; in either case, they can’t be reasoned with or shamed. In fact, they are further committed to death and—even after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary—the firearms to deliver it. The only thing we can do is be ready, and that means being candid and clearheaded about what’s happening here. We either accept this reality now, or wait until the violence gets worse.