On June 20, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order bringing to an end the practice of separating undocumented migrants from their children on the US-Mexico border and announced, with typical precision and accuracy, “It’s been going on for 60 years. 60 years. Nobody has taken care of it. Nobody has had the political courage to take care of it. But we’re going to take care of it.”
The crisis is far from resolved — families can still be detained, just together; children are still separate from their families (who in some cases don’t know where they are) and Trump has mused on henceforth removing undocumented migrants’ right to due process. But given the apparent intractability of the administration, the executive order counts as a major win for opponents of the policy.
Of course, the similarity between the new US approach and that long employed in Australia has been noted by many in the media — despite claims to the contrary, there are still 200 children in asylum seeker detention both on and off-shore and, while the details are opaque, Deborah Zion in The Conversation says families are still regularly separated. Trump’s executive order came about after sustained pressure from the public and media to renege on the policy. How did they achieve in roughly a month what refugee activists in Australia have failed to do in nearly 20 years?
The Australian government can send asylum seekers (even those ultimately successful in their application who offend in the community) off shore, to Australian territories like Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus. It can rely on a client state like Nauru to make the process of applying for a journalists visa prohibitively expensive, or just deny them to all but friendly journalists. The Trump administration has no such luxury.
Though the separated families have been scattered across the country — in some cases in secret locations — they are accessible enough for lawmakers, the media and eventually the first lady to visit, and their accounts, not to mention pictures of children in cages form part of the movements against the policy.
But it is not simply a case of access. The policy has been met with unanimous (aside from Trump’s mouthpieces at Fox) outrage; even aggressively centrist publications such as The Economist and Time have published unequivocal condemnations of the policy.
The Time cover, showing a smiling Trump looking down at a weeping Honduran child, became instantly iconic.
While there has been no shortage of serious, thoughtful and thorough reporting on asylum seeker policy in Australia there has been no similar concentration of criticism.
The Trump rhetoric around immigration has been to pin the culpability on the Democratic Party — Trump is merely enacting laws that the democrats refuse to change. While the Democrats under “deporter-in-chief” Barack Obama were not the greatest friends of undocumented migrants, the accusation wasn’t true. They have been publicly united in their opposition to the policy.
In Australia, however, there is, for the most part, agreement on the issue between the major parties. Indeed, the current arrangement was engineered by Labor’s Kevin Rudd, in an attempt to wedge Tony Abbott on his trademark policy leading up to the 2013 election. Any hint of movement towards a less strict policy on Labor’s side leads inevitably the accusation that boat arrivals would immediately begin again under a Labor government. This has hitherto proved an effective cudgel, preserving the bipartisan commitment to “stopping the boats”.
A small but key victory, both symbolic and practical, for opponents of the separation policy is that it relies at least partly on resources controlled by the individual states. Governors in eight states — including New York, North Carolina and Virginia — all announced they would either recall or withhold their national guard troops from the southern border until the policy was abandoned. Largely these are Democrat state, but two Republican governors (who are coincidentally facing elections in November) in Maryland and Massachusetts also reversed their plans.
While state governments (notably Victoria) in Australia have stepped in to fill gaps left by the Commonwealth in asylum seeker support, Australia’s states exercise no such control over the forces (either federal or private) that allow the detention to continue. Of course, given the bipartisan agreement over the policy, it wouldn’t matter much if they did.