Trump relents on family separations. Merkel under pressure over asylum seekers. Rhetoric heats up for US–China trade war. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump keeps families together – in custody

A Honduran boy and his father are taken into custody by US Border Patrol agents in Texas near the Mexican border last week.
A Honduran boy and his father are taken into custody by US Border Patrol agents in Texas near the Mexican border last week.
Credit: John Moore / Getty Images

He may have surrendered ground to Kim Jong-un in Singapore, but Donald Trump is having none of the criticism. It’s problem solved: North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat”. But that was last week, and this week Trump pursued similar victories on two other fronts.

Declaring he didn’t want the United States turned into a “refugee camp”, Trump at first defended harsh new immigration rules – prosecuting border crossings with “zero tolerance” – which since April have seen more than 2300 children separated from their parents as they tried to enter the US from Mexico. With parents taken away to detention, the children were declared “unaccompanied” and put in camps, some improvised with chain-link fences and tents. Some parents were deported, forced to leave their children behind.

Speaking at a police conference, Trump’s attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, declared that “having children does not give you immunity from arrest and prosecution” and went on to invoke biblical authority. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government,” said Sessions, “because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

Critics of the policy pointed out the same chapter had been used to oppose the American Revolution and support slavery. Then news portal ProPublica obtained an audio recording from inside one of these camps. Several children from Central America could be heard crying for their “Mami” and “Papa”. A border agent was picked up joking at the wailing: “Well, we have an orchestra here, right? … What we’re missing is a conductor.”

The harrowing recording caused revulsion across America. Four wives of former presidents – Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton – condemned the policy. Laura Bush likened it to the internment of Japanese–Americans in World War II, though in that case families were held together. Even Melania Trump put out a statement that she “hates to see” children separated from their families.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress worked on bills aimed at keeping border-crossing families together while their cases were processed. Trump called some of the proposals “crazy”, including the hiring of hundreds of new judges to speed up hearings. But by midweek, Trump relented. He signed an order that families be detained together.

Trump wants Congress to enact a wide new law cracking down on asylum seekers, allowing speedy deportations, and cutting back on entry visas in many categories. Oh, and to allocate $US25 billion for his border wall. Trump’s homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, insisted the US was a country of “compassion” and “heart”.

The ripples from the now-overturned separation of children from their parents after border crossings spread beyond America. “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. A day later, Trump’s ambassador at the UN, Nikki Haley, announced US withdrawal from the 47-member body, declaring it “a protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias”.

Merkel challenged on asylum seekers

When it comes to immigration policy, Europe was also heading in the direction pioneered by former prime minister John Howard and currently pursued with zeal by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

In Germany, Angela Merkel has been fending off a rebellion by her hardline interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who wants to push for a European Union agreement to return asylum seekers to the country where they were first registered. The dispute threatens to bring down her coalition government, of which Seehofer’s Bavarian-based Christian Social Union is a key component.

Merkel managed to get two weeks to try to win an arrangement at an EU summit this coming week, before talking about it with Seehofer again. On the sidelines, Trump was jeering at her for allowing in some 1.6 million refugees, most from Syria, since 2014. “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” Trump tweeted. “Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”

Germany’s federal policy agency issued figures last month showing crime at its lowest rate in 30 years. The number of crimes registered dropped nearly 10 per cent last year, while the number of suspects who were immigrants fell 41 per cent.

In Italy, the new government’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who earlier refused entry to a rescue ship with 639 migrants picked up from small boats, announced his officials would be compiling a registry of the Roma population, to deal with “chaos” they were creating.

This drew immediate comparisons with the census of Jews under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, a prelude to deportation to death camps. “You can work for security and respect for rules without becoming fascist,” tweeted centre-left MP Ettore Rosato. “The announced census of Roma is vulgar and demagogical.”

US and China trade blows

Trump’s second front this week was trade war with China. The escalating threats of retaliatory tariffs covering most of China’s exports to the US put sharemarkets in the US and Asia into a deep drop. It was starting to look uncomfortably like 1929.

The threats built up after Trump’s administration published a list of imports from China worth a total $US50 billion that would be hit with 25 per cent tariffs from July, and China responded by saying it would impose matching tariffs and withdraw its promise to buy an extra $US70 billion of US goods.

Trump then threatened 10 per cent duties on a further $US200 billion in imports from China, and another $US200 billion after that if Beijing retaliated. If carried out, this would cover most of the $US506 billion of US imports from China. China said it would respond “forcefully” to what it called “extortion”.

“China has been taking out $500 billion a year out of our country and rebuilding China,” Trump said on Tuesday. “They’ve taken so much. It’s time, folks, it’s time. So we’re going to get smart, and we’re going to do it right.”

The goal behind this game of chicken is to force China to stop making the transfer of trade secrets the price of doing business in its markets, stop subsidies to state enterprises to enable them to take the lead in advanced technologies, and to cease theft of intellectual property. “If they thought that they could buy us off cheap with a few extra products and allow them to continue to steal our intellectual property and crown jewels, that was a miscalculation,” said Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro.

China had much more to lose from a trade war, Navarro said, since it sold four times more to the US than the US did to China. Others pointed out US consumers would be collateral damage. “We appreciate President Trump’s efforts to protect the United States’ ‘crown jewels,’ but tariffs are simply the wrong way to do it,” said IT industry spokesman Jose Castaneda. “The White House needs to work with our allies to create lasting change with China. Too many jobs and livelihoods are at stake to get this wrong.”

And, of course, if Trump takes down the Chinese economy, Australia is collateral damage, too.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 23, 2018 as "Trump keeps families together – in custody".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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