While Joe Biden is unlikely to bring this up, the Obama deported more people than any other president. While this was criticized by some, the anger and outrage against it cannot match that directed against the Trump administration. As such, Trump supporters might think themselves justified when they point out this fact about the Obama administration as a defense of Trump. While Obama should not get a pass on his deportation record, it is worth noting important differences between the two administrations. One important difference is that Obama had a well-defined set of policies designed to account for the reality of limited resources. Trump certainly does not take this approach. Second, Obama focused on deporting those who had committed crimes (other than crossing the border illegally) and new arrivals. In contrast, Trump seems to be after everyone. Finally, and most importantly, the Obama administration did not adopt a strategy of creating fear. The Trump administration has made it clear that they regard using fear as a deterrent as a legitimate immigration tool.
At this point, you might be thinking the obvious: deterring people by using laws and policies that create fear is a standard practice. That is how we, as a society, try to keep people from committing crime ranging from jaywalking to mass murder. So, you might wonder, what could be wrong with this?
While there are moral thinkers who oppose the use of coercion by fear across the board, the general strategy of keeping people behaving properly by the use of fear does have the approval of Aristotle and I will not argue against the general principle that it can be acceptable to use fear to deter immoral or illegal behavior. This is obviously analogous to the use of force: not all uses of force are to be condemned, just the immoral ones. So, the key question to be addressed here is whether Trump’s approach to deterring migrants is morally acceptable.
As a general policy, the Trump administration seems to have adopted the strategy of trying to deter migrants by engaging in behavior that seems evil. First, the administration aggressively followed a policy of separating children and parents and officials made it clear that this was a policy intended to deter migration by creating fear that America would do evil to migrants. It is, after all, no accident that a standard shorthand in fiction for showing that a group is evil is to depict it as taking children from their parents. Second, the Trump administration has become even more infamous for its treatment of detained children. Caging children and denying them necessities is also a stock behavior of evil characters in fiction, for good reason—such behavior is evil. Once again, this is to deter migrants from coming here by creating fear: if you come here, we will put your children into dirty cages without soap or toothbrushes.
Proponents of this policy argue that people choose to come here illegally knowing what will happen—hence what is done to them is justified. On the one hand, this does have some appeal. If you tell someone that the pot on stove is hot and they put their hand on it anyway to grab some food, they only have themselves to blame. On the other hand, if people are being pushed into the situation, then the use of such tactics simply means that people will be harmed rather than deterred. Going back to the stove, if you keep the pot of food hot to deter starving people from taking the food, you will just end up burning hungry people. Saying that they knew they would be burned is not an adequate defense. In the case of migration, many people are fleeing the nightmare we helped to create in Central America—they are being pushed by things worse than what the Trump administration is trying to scare them away with.
There is also the fact that, as Locke argued, there are moral limits to how even a criminal can be treated. One of these is proportionality—separating families and imprisoning children without the necessities is a punishment that goes beyond the alleged crime. This is especially important in the case of children—they cannot justly be considered guilty of a crime and hence punishing them is utterly unwarranted. As such, using these methods is wrong.
As a final point, even if using such wicked means to deter people could be justified on utilitarian grounds, this would require showing that they are effective. However, they do not work and thus we are burning the hungry because the pain of the burn is less than the pain of the hunger, to go back to the analogy. The Trump administration seems fine with this—while they had hoped these evils would deter people, they seem to have no qualms about doing wrong even when it does not achieve their stated goal. At this point it would seem to be evil for evil’s sake, which would not be out of place as a slogan for the Trump administration.