Illinois has joined 18 other states suing over the Trump administration’s unconscionable move to remove rules that restricted how long federal immigration officials can hold migrant families. Missouri, to its shame, is sitting out that suit. Perhaps our state is too busy with its role in another national lawsuit, attempting to take away Americans’ guaranteed coverage for pre-existing medical conditions.
The contrast between these two national lawsuits is a stark illustration of America’s divided ideological landscape today. The deep, seemingly unbridgeable chasm between red states and blue states in 2019 is not just about differences of opinion on policy but fundamentally different ideas about what America should be.
The attorneys general of California and Massachusetts recently struck a bold stance on that question, declaring in a federal lawsuit that this shouldn’t be a nation that indefinitely detains migrant children and their families for trying to escape rampant crime and poverty.
The two states sued to prevent the Trump administration from ditching the Flores agreement, a legal settlement that says undocumented migrant families awaiting processing must be released within 20 days, even as their immigration cases continue. While some might use that system to improperly remain in America, the settlement was a recognition that indefinitely detaining entire families is an unnecessary and disproportionately harsh response.
But the Trump administration — which never misses an opportunity to show the xenophobic elements of President Donald Trump’s base how disproportionately harsh it can be toward brown-skinned foreigners — wants to be allowed to hold those families indefinitely.
Trump stubbornly insists canceling the Flores agreement is right, even though it’s not clear he even knows what it is. Speaking during an April border visit, Trump declared, “I have to tell you, Judge Flores, whoever you may be, that decision is a disaster for our country.”
The agreement was named after Jenny Lisette Flores, who fled war-torn El Salvador in the 1980s at age 15 and was detained at the border. The agreement protects migrant children from indefinite detention and assures basic rights to receive food, medical assistance, drinking water and access to toilets.
California and Massachusetts argue in their lawsuit that prolonged detention can cause irreparable harm to children and the U.S. communities where they eventually settle. Illinois and a slew other Democrat-led states quickly joined in, including New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and others. The District of Columbia also signed on.
That phenomenon — like-minded states grouping together in federal suits with ideological overtones — has become common today.
It goes both ways, of course. Thus did Missouri last year join almost 20 other Republican-led states — Texas, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi and Utah among them — suing to kick the legs out from under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. In essence, Republican leaders in those states want a court to do for the GOP what they were unable to do even when they held the White House and both chambers of Congress. The Trump administration has backed the effort.
There has been concern even from some Republicans of what it will mean if this attempt to return to the bad old days of health care is successful: Obamacare requires insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions. Americans, by wide margins, want those protections to continue. The GOP is pursuing the lawsuit anyway.
Missouri’s move to join the suit was spearheaded by then-state Attorney General Josh Hawley as he was gearing up for his successful U.S. Senate run. When pressed last year about whether he was worried he’d be throwing millions of Americans off their health care by joining the suit, Republican Hawley denied that basic fact — and then campaigned as the champion of pre-existing-condition coverage, a tactic so mendacious that it got flabbergasted national coverage.
Just one state is common to both these national suits, and its convoluted story is instructive. Maine originally joined the suit against Obamacare, put there by then-Gov. Paul LePage, a controversial hard-right Republican with a history of racist rants and extremist politics. After LePage was term-limited out of office last year and succeeded by a Democrat, Maine withdrew from the anti-Obamacare suit. The state is now a co-plaintiff in the suit against the Trump administration’s immigration move.
It’s possible, then, for states to move from one column to the other in America’s ideological showdown. But occupying both at once remains, for now, seemingly impossible.
These two lawsuits point to a disturbing reality about America in 2019: This is, in real ways, two countries, with ideological moorings that may shift but seldom overlap. But the two sides aren’t necessarily evenly matched.
The Electoral College and the demographic advantage that small red states hold in Congress has kept Republicans in power. But poll after poll shows that on myriad issues — abortion, gun control, taxes and, yes, immigration and health care — most of America doesn’t embrace the GOP’s current far-right extremism. Even in red-state Missouri, the voters, when given the chance via referendum, have repudiated conservative state leaders on labor rights, the minimum wage, medical marijuana and other issues.
Across the Mississippi from St. Louis sits a Democrat-run state government that views humane treatment of desperate foreign migrants as an expression of the best of our national character. On the Missouri side, a Republican-controlled government doesn’t think even our own citizens deserve the humane baseline of universal health care.
Both issues get at this biggest of questions about America today: Who are we? That question is, ultimately, what’s on the 2020 ballot.