Analysis: If kids separated from their parents can’t hold our attention, what will?

Public attention has moved, but the news hasn't: The separated families on the border are still waiting to be reunited.

Marcos Samayoa learns that his wife was detained and separated from their children as he waits on the international bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico, on June 20, 2018. Reynaldo Leal for The Texas Tribune

The Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of children from adults who crossed the border illegally, has fueled a national outcry. Sign up for our ongoing coverage. Send story ideas to tips@texastribune.org.

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And — click — we have moved on to something else, like bored weekenders mashing the buttons on our TV remotes.

Enough with those immigrants and their children. What else is on?

Scott Pruitt and #AbolishICE and the U.S. Supreme Court and the World Cup — anything that doesn't involve kids in government pens in repurposed discount stores without their parents to care for them.

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The body politic is doing what it does best: changing the channel, changing the subject.

Those new things are news, no question. But it’s hard to stay focused on a problem long enough to do something about it, even when it’s a problem like the family separation mess that cuts across partisan lines. In fact, that partisan slippage is a good reason for Republicans to get out of that fight.

People on both sides objected to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that required splitting up families crossing illegally into the United States. Democrats and Republicans didn’t have identical reactions by any means: According to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 83 percent of the state’s Democratic registered voters opposed “separating children and parents who are apprehended while trying to enter the U.S. illegally”; among Republicans, 46 percent supported it and 35 percent opposed it. But Republican opposition was important and turned the policy argument: GOP women in that poll opposed separating parents and children 42 percent to 37 percent. Men favored it, but Republican men in Texas haven’t made anyone’s list of voters most ready to change their minds.

Is it any surprise the incumbent majority — the party that holds everything from the Texas Legislature all the way up to the White House — would like to talk about something else?

They’re getting help from the Democrats, as Karen Tumulty has pointed out in The Washington Post, in the form of the #AbolishICE effort that — like it or not — switches from a conversation that was hard on the Trump administration and the federal government to one that plays to a Republican strength of strong borders and tough immigration enforcement.

It dehumanizes it, too, crowding out those wailing children and replacing them with a version of the immigration fight that’s been going on for ages. The numbers aren’t as good for the anti-Trumpers and others when the debate widens more broadly to border security and immigration, especially in Texas. In that same UT/TT Poll, 53 percent of Republicans listed those as the most important problems facing the state. Trump himself got remarkably high marks for the job he’s doing, at least from Republicans. They might dislike the take-the-kids strategy, but they haven’t come off their immigration or political perches.

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As a Republican, which fight would you want in a midterm election year?

For a minute, it looked like it was going the GOP’s way, and it still might do so. Dumping Scott Pruitt with a tweet during a summer week with two long weekends built in unloads a problem with relatively minimal public notice. That’s a story that leapt in front of family separations, but only for a minute.

The real save for the Republicans, news-wise, was Anthony Kennedy’s resignation from the U.S. Supreme Court and the resulting attention on who Trump might choose as a replacement. All the Democratic and Republican and special interest rapid-response armies of contention turned their heads from the border to the high court, redirecting attention from more than 2,000 children waiting to see their parents to a handful of conservative jurists hoping for a rare appointment.

The president rescinded the “zero tolerance” policy with an executive order, and the administration is trying to satisfy court orders that it reunite the families. One requires kids under the age of 5 to be back with their parents by Tuesday; another says older kids have to be back with their folks by July 26. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security credits the short-lived policy for a drop in border apprehensions in June. Federal officials have also suggested that families trying to cross legally into the U.S. to seek asylum are being treated fairly — a contention challenged by some of the immigrants and their attorneys.

This is still a hot mess, whether you’re still watching or not.

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