There is so much dust and debris flying around Washington these days, a lot of it deliberately kicked up by Donald Trump and his enablers, that sometimes we miss the things that are really important. I have a for-instance: the evaporation of all compassion at America’s borders.

It has been three weeks since the president’s top law enforcer, attorney general Jeff Sessions, announced a new ‘”zero tolerance” policy for foreign nationals attempting to cross into the United States illegally. Send everyone to jail and refer them for prosecution, he cried, no exceptions.

This is already happening at the southern border with Mexico which has seen a significant recent uptick in attempted crossings by citizens fleeing lives of danger and desperation in their Central American homes like Guatemala and Honduras.

Many arrive with young children in tow. Because there is no provision for sending minors to jails, this has led to the routine separation of children from mothers and fathers. Over a two-week period this month, 638 adults were referred for prosecution under the new “zero-tolerance” effort, a Border Protection official told Congress last week. They bought 658 children with them. 

Do we mean all of them were taken from their parents and carted away? Yes. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? America, a beacon of decency that once welcomed the huddled masses, ripping little ones, including infants, from the arms of those who loved and raised them, who’d already put their lives at risk because they believed that if they made it here their futures would be better. 

This, I am afraid, is what this country, under Trump, has descended to. Some parent-child separation has happened in the past, but it was never systematic. Generally, when parents were apprehended at the border, they were sent to family shelters to await either deportation or processing for asylum. Their children stayed with them. Too humane for this administration. 

“I keep imagining somebody taking my kids from me. My kids are two and four years old, and that’s the age of some of the children that have been separated from their parents,” noted Joaquin Castro, a Democrat congressman from Texas. “When a lot of people hear the story, they get a similar reaction. They can’t imagine why this would be a standard government practice.”

What happens to the children you wonder, after they are put into the backs of vans – in government-purchased child seats if they are young enough – and driven away? They become wards of the government, which will first attempt to trace relatives already in the US. Otherwise they may be deported, deposited in shelters or with families willing to foster them. Parents who have cases that are resolved quickly may be reunited with their offspring with equal speed. But most will spend weeks and months never knowing when they will see their kids again.

“In many cases they may never,” Michelle Brané, executive director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told the Houston Chronicle. “We have seen children as young as 18 months deported without their parents and more commonly, parents deported without their children. Parents arrive in Central America with no idea of how to get their children back.”

Trump promised in 2016 he’d repair the country’s damaged immigration system. Damaged it is, as well as cruel and dysfunctional. But what he meant, of course, was that he would choke off avenues for immigrants to get in. But it’s a promise he’s had trouble keeping. Congress nixed his wall, though it did spend millions building prototype sections outside San Diego. I visited them and while I was there a mother clambered over the existing fence with a toddler. Lucky for her zero tolerance hadn’t started.

The logic is clear. Only by vowing to jail everyone when they get here can America send its message to those considering making the risky voyage north: don’t do it. If images of babes being wrenched from mothers adds to the terror of taking the risk, then so be it. 

But it’s ice-cold. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said at the border. “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the same to the US Senate. “Anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted. If you’re a parent, or you’re a single person, or you happen to have a family, if you cross between the ports of entry, we will refer you for prosecution. You’ve broken US law.”

But it is Trump himself who takes the gold star for cynicism. Perhaps seeing that what he has wrought will place in him uncomfortable company in history books waiting to be written he attempted at the weekend to blame Democrats for it. “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there parents once they cross the Border,” he tweeted.

The brazenness of him. There is no such law, passed by Democrats or by anyone else. There is only his new policy of zero tolerance. Trump has no shame, though hopefully the country as a whole will find its own and stop this barbarism at the border before more lives are ruined.