What Does It Mean to Have a “Civil Debate” with a Man Who Put Children in Cages?

Until this year, my nephews’ annual birthday celebration included a trip to the local kids’ museum downtown. I’d take the day off work, pack lunches and a good selection of snacks and we’d catch a city bus downtown — they were fascinated by city buses when they were younger, school buses, however, not so much. We’d get to the museum and the boys would spend four or five hours moving from station to station, enjoying themselves so much that they barely wanted to stop for food or drink.

We added another tradition to those annual trips to the kids’ museum a few years ago: as soon as we arrive at the museum, we take pictures. They’re so used to me snapping pictures of them, they don’t bother to ask why I’m doing it. They don’t realize that it’s my way of making sure that I can identify every stitch of clothes that they’re wearing. They never notice that I’m taking their picture next to the ruler so that I know how tall they’ve gotten. They don’t know that I’m preparing for the moment when I look up and one of them isn’t there.

It happened one time. I looked away for a second and then one of them was gone. I jumped up and grabbed his brother, pulling him from one station to the next in a frantic search. A member of the museum staff saw me and came to my aid. What’s his name? I told her. What’s he look like? I answered. How tall is he? What’s he wearing? I don’t know, I don’t remember. She called a description out to her colleagues, based on what little information I’d provided. I was still frantic — annoyed by the crowds of kids who made the search for my nephew much harder — and so, so mad at myself for not noticing what he’d been wearing.

They found him within minutes. He’d made his way back down to the first floor to the toy trains and was with another member of the museum’s staff. Relief made its way through my body — loosening my grip on my other nephew’s arm, slowing my heart rate back down to a normal pace — and I ran to reunite with my nephew who, of course, was unbothered. He just wanted to play with the trains, he said, blissfully unaware that he’d given me one of the scariest moments of my life.

I thought about that day again last night, when Kristen Welker asked the president about the more than 500 children who were separated from their parents by this administration’s grotesque immigration actions. I thought about the fear I experienced on the day I lost my nephew — for just a little while, in a museum brimming with cameras and staff — and tried to imagine what it must be like to be one of those parents… to have that fear be omnipresent in your life… and to have the man responsible for it, show not even the slightest bit of remorse for your pain.

“Mr. President, your administration separated children from their parents at the border, at least 4,000 kids,” Welker asked during last night’s debate. “You’ve since reversed your zero tolerance policy, but the United States can’t locate the parents of more than 500 children. So how will these families ever be reunited?”

Donald Trump never answered the question and, instead tried to hit all the immigration buzz words he knew: coyotes, cartels, bad people, the wall. It was nonsensical, of course — the question was about family separation so the idea that coyotes or cartels are primary actors is absurd — but Trump is invested in turning out his base and they eat those buzz words up with a spoon. Welker continued to press him about how he would reunite the kids with their families and he deflected blame to the Obama-Biden administration. They built the cages, he said, ignoring the fact that no one had even asked him about that. Welker pressed again and Trump conceded that there was no plan before returning to his buzz words.

“We’re working on it very… We’re trying very hard,” Trump answered. “But a lot of these kids come out without the parents. They come over through cartels and through coyotes and through gangs.”

Biden, on the other hand, at least had the decency to be indignant about the separations, saying, “Parents were ripped… their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 of the sets of those parents, and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”

Trump was granted time to respond and, instead of offering a rebuttal, he tells the national audience about how well those 500+ children are being kept. He said, “they are so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that were so clean.”

The facilities where they lie in cages on concrete floors, wrapped in mylar blankets… the facilities where story after story suggests that those children aren’t just being traumatized by the separation and the conditions, they’re being sexually abused while in custody. Their facilities aren’t clean, they are not “so well taken care of”… the president is a liar.

There are people who are calling this debate “civil.” Because Trump wasn’t the ranting, raving bully that he was in the first debate, there are people willing to cede the debate to him. He managed to climb over the lowest of low bars so, of course, let’s dub him the winner. That’s how much the political media is invested in tone.

But this debate was not civil. There is nothing civil about orphaning 500+ kids as a matter of public policy. There is nothing civil about putting them in cages. There is nothing civil about the way we’ve treated these families who came to the United States — in accordance with the law — and asked for mercy. This is not civil… and the fact that anyone thinks so says more about them and the things they value than what actually happened on that debate stage.

Last night was the final presidential debate before Election Day (11 days away). Biden was as effective as he’s been throughout this campaign, litigating the president’s failures, and Trump didn’t do enough to expand his outreach beyond the base (and, in particular, among that part of the base that spends as much time as he does embracing conspiracy theories). It’s my hope that it’ll be the last time we see the president on the national stage…but I worry that what we’ll be left with is a politics and a media who never really disagreed with Trump — not on policy — they just didn’t appreciate his tone.

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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 405 articles for us.


  1. this is truly THE question, and so well answered here. thank you for this. i am always shocked when any conversation about that man doesn’t begin and end with these policies.

  2. Style matters more than substance. Other people’s lives are abstractions. 545 is just a number.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the kind of person who isn’t fundamentally malevolent but would believe this is the kind of person who is much more likely to end up with the kind of privileged place in life where this is entirely true for all practical purposes (assuming they didn’t already have it)… and also, is the type of person who would be offended if you pointed that out, whether or not you use the word “privilege”. Too often these people are the ones who cast the deciding vote, when everyone else is deeply divided.

    Fortunately Trump has so many other minuses that his odds of winning aren’t high, even if most of those people think he won on style here.

  3. oh gosh, Natalie, thank you for all the work you’ve done.

    like i really want all this to be over in part so that you aren’t called to cover this terrible man any further. but there’s the part of me that remembers wishing for the election to be over in 2016, and then after, realizing i would rather have gone through four years of it being the run up to that election if it meant that we didn’t actually have to have him as president. i still have hope this time, but can’t quite get past the fear.

    vote your asses off, everybody!

  4. I definitely appreciate that this administration has upped the ante in every possible way….but certainly the Obama administration laid the groundwork. It won’t stop me from voting for Biden, but I think it is important to pause and understand that this did not happen overnight, nor under the umbrella of one party. We have a lot of work to do to rebuild paths to citizenship which meet the needs of both the immigrants who seek to come here and the ones who are already here.

  5. The Obama/Biden admin deported over 3 million people. They jailed children with their parents, Trump separated them. I’m not sure Biden has much of a moral high ground in this area, maybe a mm or two at best.

  6. So I’ve been thinking about this a lot because it seems like after this debate there was a lot of divided discussion over “well the Obama administration did a lot of awful things and (in total) more deportations than Trump; they laid the groundwork.” That’s all true (and I would actually argue the groundwork goes back quite a bit further). But I say this in reply to a couple of the previous comments re: Biden doesn’t really have the moral high ground or that the problems go far beyond Trump.

    There’s truth to both of those things. But there’s also just an extraordinary cruelty that is specific to the Trump administration, where they took horrible policies that were already in place and wielded them with an aim to cause the most damage and the most pain to people they continue to dehumanize. This level of intentionality in the underlying policies matter is not merely semantics or of turning a blind eye to what happened under the Obama administration (or really, going back further, Clinton); to me, at least, it’s a really meaningful difference. I say this as an immigrant who is friends with a lot immigrants. There was always cause for fear and concern but the Trump administration effectively put that all on steroids. And, I think, that’s what Natalie captures so effectively here.

    There’s two articles that were published recently that I think make this point incredibly effectively:

    From Mother Jones: “Trump and white nationalist senior adviser Stephen Miller did not have to conjure out of whole cloth a system that inflicts maximum pain on asylum seekers and refugees, visa holders, and immigrant detainees. They took the system they inherited and stripped it of anything that acknowledged the humanity of those trapped within it. They formalized the informal brutality of the Obama administration’s immigration regime. The cruelty, as Adam Serwer put it, was now the point.”

    And The Guardian:”The architect of Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policy, senior adviser Stephen Miller, is said to have a drawer full of executive orders ready to be signed in ‘shock and awe’ style if Trump is re-elected … it included policies that were too unpopular for a president seeking re-election. … Those items are expected to include attempting to eliminate birthright citizenship, making the US citizenship test more difficult to pass, ending the program which protects people from deportation when there is a crisis is their country (Temporary Protected Status) and slashing refugee admissions even further, to zero.”

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