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Zero tolerance and due process

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke in Washington at a four-day conference hosted by Turning Point, a conservative organization with 350 chapters nationwide. According to Wikipedia, its mission is to educate students about free-market values. It also maintains a professor watchlist with “the names of college professors that discriminate against conservative students and advance ‘leftist propaganda.’ ” In 2017, former employees of Turning Point accused it of ongoing racist practices as well as illegal involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

Attending Sessions’ speech were several hundred right-leaning high school students. Given this audience, the AG criticized American universities, using barely coded language, saying that many were “coddling students and creating a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.” Continuing, he said, universities have “cry closets, safe spaces, optional exams, therapy goats and grade inflation.”

It was at this point that the high school audience began chanting, “lock her up,” beginning somewhat hesitantly and then building in volume and conviction. Hearing this, Session went off script, laughing, saying, “I heard that a long time over the last campaign.” And, indeed, it was the Trump mantra, “her,” of course, referring to Hillary Clinton. The familiar incantation was heard not only at rallies, but at the Republican National Convention, encouraged from the dais by retired Army General Mike Flynn (in retrospect, a moment now freighted with irony).

As “lock her up” washed over him, the Attorney General was confronted with a teachable moment. He could have held up a hand, his face a mien of seriousness, calling for silence. And he could have then taken that opportunity — as our chief law enforcement officer, as someone who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution — to explain the meaning of due process and its connection to the Fifth and 14th amendments. He could have stated, forcefully, with conviction, that due process is the fundamental principle of fair treatment and represents all legal rights owed to a person. And it acts as a safeguard from arbitrary denial of life, liberty or property by the government.

Jeff Sessions knows all of this. And it was his obligation to explain the full meaning of those words, due process, to what should have been a hushed audience. It was a moment that called for character, it was an opportunity to step forward, to iterate that Hillary Clinton had been charged with no crime. In fact, she had been found innocent of any wrongdoing. And in America, we do not casually or revengefully or arbitrarily lock someone up absent due process.

That there were hundreds of conventioneers, Republicans all, joining Flynn in insisting that Hillary be jailed is chilling, perhaps symptomatic of their enthusiastic embracing of a candidate who would be king.

Standing at that podium, Sessions failed. He failed himself, his office, and his oath to our country and its cornerstone principles. Instead, this small man reflexively pandered to teenagers, responding to their chant as if it were an affirmation of what? Of zero tolerance?

We are a nation of laws, and one of those laws applies to every individual who reaches our shores and makes an appeal for asylum. Each is granted due process and given the opportunity to state his or her case, to offer up a rationale for leaving their country of origin, wishing only to be granted the possibility of being heard. This much is their right, and it is our pledge.

However, this administration, led by Trump/Sessions, has run roughshod over this law, manipulating its intent, ignoring its mandate, incarcerating or deporting mothers without their children, later handing them documents they cannot read or comprehend, while encouraging them to waive their right to an asylum hearing.

This is the chaos and depravity of zero tolerance. A mother in El Salvador, recently deported, is told that all she has to do is call HHS and they will help her get her child back. It’s a craven thing to promise and an obviation of due process and echoes of “lock her up.”

Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.