"That makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation," rival Joe Biden said at the debate, of Trump's choice to separate migrant families

October 23, 2020 12:15 AM
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Echoing comments he made early on in his 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump defended his administration's controversial "zero tolerance" immigration policy at Thursday's debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden — saying children detained at the southern border are "so well taken care of."

Trump also argued that the Obama administration "built" the chained enclosures used to house kids who had been separated from their families.

Moderator Kristen Welker questioned the president regarding the news earlier this week that lawyers still haven’t been able to locate the parents of 545 migrant children separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the government's immigration policy.

"How will these families ever be reunited?" Welker, 44, asked Trump, 74.

Rather than offering a clear plan in response, Trump initially turned to a slew of go-to campaign rhetoric regarding illegal immigration, invoking his border wall and seemingly suggesting he was simply following the lead of the previous administration.

President Donald Trump
| Credit: Getty Images

After Democratic nominee Joe Biden said the kids have "nowhere to go" and called the family separation policy "criminal," Trump said of the children: "They are so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that were so clean."

The president also defended his administration's use of the "cages" that have become a lightning rod for controversy in the immigration debate in recent years as the migrants — many of whom also had kids seeking asylum from harsh and dangerous conditions — were held in much-maligned conditions after being detained when they illegally crossed the border.

Trump, who didn't deny that his administration had used the enclosures, said at Thursday's debate that it was predecessor Barack Obama's administration that built them.

"They built the cages," Trump said. "They used to say I built the cages ... it was determined they were built in 2014."

President Donald Trump (left) and former Vice President Joe Biden at Thursday night's debate in Nashville, Tennessee.
| Credit: Getty Images

While the chain-link enclosures were used by the Obama administration in certain circumstances, family separations were conducted much more widely under Trump's tenure, when the blanket zero-tolerance policy was put into practice because officials believed it would be a deterrent to migrants.

As photos and reports of the children in those facilities began to be made public, controversy surrounding that policy grew to a point where the administration ultimately suspended it with an executive order.

Even after signing the order reversing the policy, Trump has said the policy should remain in effect.

"That [policy] makes us a laughingstock and violates every notion of who we are as a nation," Biden, 77, said on Thursday.

"They did it," Trump responded, again invoking Obama's own policy, when he also separated some migrant families, but conceding: "We changed the policy."

Trump’s administration has worked to crack down on immigration since taking office in 2017, often utilizing harsh rhetoric and harsh tactics. From the moment he announced his candidacy, the president has argued that the flow of migrants into the U.S. should be restricted.

Echoing remarks he made early on his campaign, in which he called Mexicans "drug dealers, criminals and rapists," Trump referred in the Thursday debate to "murderers, rapists and very bad [people]" who crossed the U.S. border and were then detained by immigration authorities.

He then suggested that only those migrants with the "lowest IQ" would comply with their legal obligations to show up to their court hearings after being detained.

Trump has frequently used that talking point as rationale for expanding detention, though some studies have shown as many as 99 percent of asylum seekers who were not detained or previously released from immigration custody have appeared for their hearings in the past.

"Only those with the really — I really hate to say this — but those with the lowest IQ might come back," Trump said.