Donald Trump isn't the first president to harshly treat undocumented immigrants. He is the cruelest.

President Trump's new immigration policy uses an old tactic - deterring border crossers with harsh treatment.
President Trump's new immigration policy uses an old tactic - deterring border crossers with harsh treatment. Observer file photo

Donald Trump is far from the only president — Republican or Democrat — with policies that harshly treat undocumented immigrants, although Trump has taken that to new and crueler depths. Trump also is far from the only president to speak out of both sides of his mouth on immigration — although he might be the first to so blatantly lie about what his administration has chosen to do.

That lie — expressed in a weekend tweet — blamed Democrats for a "horrible law" that separated immigrant children from their parents at the border. That's untrue. Previously, children and parents caught at the border were sent to facilities in which they were allowed to remain together. But this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new policy (not law) that all people crossing the border illegally would be subject to criminal prosecution, and that because children can't be held in adult jails, families would be split up.

The policy has prompted heart-wrenching stories of terrified children being forcefully separated from horrified parents. Those awful scenes — and the swell of criticism that's followed — apparently was enough for Trump to wrongly point the finger elsewhere, but others in his administration are unrepentant. "If you don't want your child separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally," Sessions said.

Which is, to the policy's supporters, exactly the point. The separation tactic is a deterrent — designed simply to make immigrants think twice before heading to the border with their families. It's an approach previous administrations have used, too, including Trump's immediate predecessor.

For the last decade, the little-known Alien Transfer Exit Program has transported adult male immigrants thousands of miles from the place they were caught at the U.S. border before releasing them back into Mexico. ATEP was launched in 2008, near the end of the George W. Bush presidency, but the program was ramped up under Barack Obama in 2011 after an increase in border crossings.

ATEP, too, indirectly broke up families by sending some fathers to far-flung places. (Children, however, were not wrested from parents and detained alone.) ATEP also sent those men back across the border in unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous places, leaving them vulnerable to crime. The purpose of such severe treatment? Like the Trump policy, it was at least in part to make immigrants reconsider border crossings.

Unlike Trump, however, previous presidents were conflicted about our immigration laws. While deportations increased under both Bush and Obama — and while the latter dramatically grew the size of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — each advocated for Congress to pass immigration reform that better recognized the value of all immigrants and the circumstances that brought many to our borders.

Congress — and specifically conservative Republicans — have blocked such reform. Their inaction has failed America and left the country with a convoluted and contradictory immigration system. It also has handed the issue to a president whose rhetoric dehumanizes both illegal and legal immigrants, and whose stone-hearted polices follow suit.