The Rhetoric of Trump’s Zero Tolerance Immigration Policy

For more than five months, controversy has swirled around the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance immigration policy, which separates families for crossing the US-Mexico border without legal authorization. Thousands of immigrant children have been forcibly separated from their parents and housed in detention centers.

Despite being officially rescinded, Zero Tolerance continues to have lasting effects on immigrant families. The administration missed two court-imposed deadlines to reunite families in July, and officials continued to dodge responsibility for family reunification, suggesting the ACLU should reunite more than 500 families that remained separated by the end of the month. According to Lee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, the Trump administration is not playing an active role in reuniting these families and they have since indicated that they would like to revisit the policy.

The evidence is clear that the consequences of family separation are appalling, including abuse, trauma, and physical health problems. But despite this and despite having to reverse the policy, administration officials, including the President himself, continue to defend the logic of Zero Tolerance as necessary and sensible. The question is, how can administration officials rationalize Zero Tolerance in light of all the evident negative effects?

One way to answer this question is to look at the ways the administration uses rhetoric. As a scholar of rhetoric and public deliberation, I have studied Trump’s rhetoric for more than three years. As with everything Trump, it is tempting to focus on the passionate arguments about immigration, both for and against. And there is certainly plenty of passion to be found.

But we can actually learn much about the administration’s priorities and how to influence them by attending carefully to the non-passionate rhetoric administration officials use to attempt to defend Zero Tolerance. Where separating families is concerned, administration officials actually want to stay as far away from passionate arguments as possible. They do this by relying on two related rhetorical strategies for changing the focus of the argument. The first is an attempt to frame all the arguments about policy instead of morality, and the second is an attempt to make the arguments about “the greater good.” By observing the administration’s arguments carefully, we can understand how they defend a stance that initially seems indefensible. And we might even develop ways to change their actions.

A Simple Matter of Policy

When asked about missing the first deadline to reunite families, President Trump responded, “Well, I have a solution. Tell people not to come to our country illegally.” He repeated the sentiment two weeks later, tweeting, “Please understand, there are consequences when people cross our Border illegally, whether they have children or not.”

From one perspective, this declaration is sign of Trump’s callousness. But viewed through the lens of rhetoric, his comment illuminates one of the administration’s central rhetorical strategies for defending Zero Tolerance: shifting the focus of the argument from morality to policy.

Since before Aristotle, rhetoricians have known the best way to avoid criticism is to ensure arguments are focused on a favorable stasis. A stasis is the part of an argument that the people involved agree to disagree about. This can be how something is defined, for instance, or who is at fault, or whether a punishment is necessary. People involved in an argument often go out of their way to shift an argument from an unfavorable stasis to a favorable one.

Trump administration officials excel at changing the stasis in arguments about Zero Tolerance. They plainly do not want to defend the morality of separating families, which is an argument from stasis poiotes (Is it good or bad?). Focusing on the stasis poiotes is profoundly unfavorable for the Trump administration because family separation is profoundly indefensible. Instead, they prefer to focus on stasis metalepsis, or an argument from policy (What is to be done?).

In order to shift the stasis from morality to policy, administration officials generally accept that family separation is regrettable. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, agrees family separation happens and he agrees it is unfortunate. But Sessions does not actually want to argue these points.

In fact, by accepting these points, he sidesteps the morality debate to focus on policy — on what must be done. As Sessions put it in an interview with Laura Ingraham, “It hasn’t been good and the American people don’t like the idea that we are separating families. We never really intended to do that.” But, he continues, “What we intended to do was to make sure that adults who bring children into the country are charged with the crime they have committed. Instead of giving that special group of adults immunity from prosecution.”

Sessions concedes separating families is bad. But he maintains that the real issue is about policy, not about morality.

The policy argument is good for Sessions because it limits his choices. Zero Tolerance requires charging undocumented immigrants with illegal entry and incarcerating them. By law, children must be separated from parents who have been charged with a crime. Therefore, Federal policy dictates family separation. In other words, his hands are tied.

The Greater Good

When administration officials like Sessions can’t avoid addressing the morality of Zero Tolerance, they adopt a different but related rhetorical strategy that attempts to bridge the gap between morality and policy: an argument for the greater good.

In rhetoric, policy arguments are generated from a topos, or an argumentative topic. One topos is the greater good — essentially, if two things are good, people should work toward the greater of the two. Policy arguments are more effective when they can assure the greater good.

In defending Zero Tolerance, for instance, administration officials argue that stopping illegal immigration is a greater good than keeping families together. Asked about the morality of housing children in detention facilities, Sessions responded, “We are trying to get this law enforcement matter settled, and we’re trying to end the lawlessness at the border.” Again, he shifts the stasis from morality to policy, and he does so specifically by implying that law enforcement is a greater good than maintaining families.

Likewise, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has said he sympathizes with immigrants, but he concludes, “the laws are the laws.” Again, family is good, but law enforcement is the greater good.

For Sessions and Kelly, family separation may be immoral, but not enforcing the law would be more immoral. Frankly, I suspect most people would be unconvinced by this argument if Sessions and Kelly put it this way. But focusing on the greater good lets them sidestep this formulation — again by shifting focus away from morality (stasis poiotes) and toward policy (stasis metalepsis).

Back to the Matter at Hand

Since Zero Tolerance was initially enacted, the story has shifted multiple times. Nevertheless, the administration’s rhetorical strategies of shifting the stasis and claiming the greater good have been fairly consistent. When they are successful, they generally manage to control the narrative. When they are forced to defend the morality of family separation, they generally find themselves at a loss.

In the coming months and years, there will undoubtedly be more arguments about the advisability of Zero Tolerance and/or actions associated with it. As long as the Trump administration doesn’t have to defend the morality of traumatizing children, they will likely continue to find some rhetorical successes. For people who want to see family separation stopped in all its forms, stasis and topos can provide ongoing opportunities to understand the administration’s priorities. More importantly, understanding stasis and topos can help people develop arguments that keep the focus where it should be: on the people that immigration policies effect.