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The Trump administration’s kidnapping — that’s the proper word — of the children of would-be migrants should be seen as an ongoing criminal conspiracy. Somebody ought to go to jail.

Under a federal court order, all 103 children under the age of 5 who were taken from their families at the border were supposed to be returned by Tuesday. The government missed that deadline, and I wish U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who issued the order, had held somebody in contempt. One candidate would be Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who on Tuesday had the gall to describe the administration’s treatment of immigrant children as “one of the great acts of American generosity and charity.”

On Thursday, officials announced with fanfare that 57 of the kids — some still in diapers — had been returned to their parents. But 46 others were deemed “ineligible,” meaning they remain in government custody.

The reasons for failing to comply fully with Sabraw’s order sound reasonable, unless you take into account the bad faith with which the administration has conducted this whole sordid exercise. In 22 cases, officials had “safety concerns posed by the adults in question,” presumably the parents; in 12 cases, parents have already been deported; in 11 cases, parents are in federal or state custody; and in one case, an adult believed to be the child’s parent cannot be found.

In a joint statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Azar took credit for working “tirelessly” to reunite the children with their families — which is rich, given that the Trump administration deliberately and cynically created this crisis in the first place.

“Our message has been clear all along: Do not risk your own life or the life of your child by attempting to enter the United States illegally,” the statement said. Translation: Don’t come to the border seeking asylum because when others did, we took away their kids.

Given that the intention from the beginning was clearly to frighten and intimidate would-be migrants from Central America, why should anyone believe the administration is acting or speaking in good faith now? Why should we accept at face value that exactly 103 children under 5 were seized? How can we be sure there is only one case in which officials can’t find or identify the parents? Given that it has taken weeks to return just 57 children, what is the likelihood that the government kept adequate records?

This is an administration, after all, that conducts immigration court proceedings, or travesties, in which children too young to know their ABCs are expected to represent themselves without benefit of legal counsel. Imagine your 2-year-old child or grandchild in that situation. Now tell me how adopting child abuse as a policy is supposed to Make America Great Again.

And what about the children older than 5 who were taken from their families? Sabraw ordered that they be returned to their parents by July 26, but don’t hold your breath. We don’t even know how many there are, because the government doesn’t seem to know. Officials first gave the number as around 2,300, but the latest estimate is nearly 3,000. Why can’t they settle on a precise figure? What reason would there be for such vagueness, other than ignorance?

I don’t think they know how many kids they ripped away from their families, and I believe that means it is inevitable that some children will never again see their parents. The fact that my government would commit such a crime weighs on my conscience as an American. President Donald Trump and his accomplices, from all appearances, couldn’t be prouder.

“Judges run the system and illegals and traffickers know how it works. They are just using children!” Trump tweeted Wednesday. As usual, he was ascribing his own base motives to others: He is the one who is “just using children.”

Remember what this is really about. The main flow of undocumented migrants consists of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans seeking to escape rampant, deadly gang violence that their home governments cannot or will not check. The Trump administration issued new instructions Wednesday to officers who interview asylum seekers at the border, telling them that fear of gang violence, no matter how well-founded, is no longer grounds for asylum. The same new rule applies to immigration judges, who take their orders from Sessions.

Kidnapping children. Failing even to account for them. Sending families home to be killed. Give us your huddled masses, this administration seems to say, and let us kick them in their little faces.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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