Rhodes served as Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications during the Obama Administration and is the author of The World As It Is.
Barack Obama used to tell me that the job of the President was to tell the best possible story about who we are as a country—through our words and deeds. After the separation of children from families seeking to join the United States. was embraced as the official policy of our government, we should ask ourselves what story we will tell.
President Trump’s story is one of cruelty—that we may do something unfathomable to deter families from coming to America. To prevent them from seeking refuge that may help them survive, be it from political persecution, gang violence, drug cartels or domestic abusers.
History suggests that Trump’s policies will fail. Downturns in migration almost always prove temporary, as people adjust to changes in American enforcement. What doesn’t change is the basic human impulse to pursue a better life, in a place where they believe it’s still possible. No deterrent can erase that desire—and for those whose lives are at risk in their home countries, nothing can cure that desperation.
Any country must establish control over its borders. That is essential to sovereignty and the security of our citizens. But America, at our best, has balanced that political, legal and social objective with an appreciation for the benefits of immigration, and a sense of respect for the dignity of all human beings. U.S. leadership has been rooted not just in our own belief in American exceptionalism, but in the faith of others around the world. By so wantonly discarding that principle, the Trump Administration has done incredible harm to the families they have separated through the state-sponsored child abuse that has been carried out in our name.
Trump has also proposed slashing the $750 million budgeted under the Obama Administration in 2016 to help Central American nations improve the poor security, governance and economic conditions that cause people to flee—assistance that required crackdowns on corruption, migration and human trafficking. That may sound like a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what Trump wants to build a wall, not to mention the costs of implementing an enforcement policy that goes far beyond simply enforcing the law. Trump also has not backed the kind of common-sense legislation pursued by Presidents Bush and Obama — a balance of border security, enforcement and a path to citizenship, particularly for those who were brought here as children. Instead, he has chosen to demagogue the issue, simultaneously appealing to supporters who are comfortable with his actions, while trying to avoid the responsibility that comes with his office.
As our government engages in the type of authoritarian practices that we used to criticize abroad, we are darkening the beacon we should shine for oppressed peoples everywhere. It is one of many ways to measure the price of this cruelty. Yet still, people in need turn to us. Instead of ruining lives and risking our social cohesion at home, we should choose to be worthy of their belief in who we are.
This appears in the July 02, 2018 issue of TIME.