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Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speak to reporters before leaving the White House in Washington. 

Lily Tomlin had it right. No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up.

The latest proof of this comes in a Washington Post report that the Trump White House has at least twice pushed an idea that represents what may be a new low for sheer callousness and misanthropy. And incidentally, is probably illegal.

White House officials tried to pressure immigration authorities to transport and release detained migrants onto the streets of "sanctuary cities" as a means of retaliating President Donald Trump's adversaries. The idea, discussed with top immigration officials by senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller, was to take desperate families, many with small children, and abandon them in places where they had no resources or ties:

Trump administration officials have proposed transporting detained immigrants to sanctuary cities at least twice in the past six months - once in November, as a migrant caravan approached the U.S. southern border, and again in February, amid a standoff with Democrats over funding for Trump's border wall.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's district in San Francisco was among those the White House wanted to target, according to DHS officials. The administration also considered releasing detainees in other Democratic strongholds.

White House officials first broached the plan in a Nov. 16 email, asking officials at several agencies whether members of the caravan could be arrested at the border and then bused "to small- and mid-sized sanctuary cities," places where local authorities have refused to hand over illegal immigrants for deportation.

The White House told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that the plan was intended to alleviate a shortage of detention space but also served to send a message to Democrats. The attempt at political retribution raised alarm within ICE, with a top official responding that it was rife with budgetary and liability concerns, and noting that "there are PR risks as well."

After the White House pressed again in February, ICE's legal department rejected the idea as inappropriate and rebuffed the administration.

ICE officials were rightly shocked. And it is noteworthy that we are learning of this, via whistleblowers, at a moment when Trump has decapitated the Department of Homeland Security, presumably so that he and Miller can carry out their more heartless and brutal schemes to deal with the flood of Central American migrants seeking asylum.

What Trump and his immigration whisperer do not seem to be interested in doing is actually solving the problem. Trump is right that there is a crisis on the border, but it is one unlike what has been seen in the past. Instead of single young men seeking work, there is a flood of families with children announcing their arrival and declaring their intent to seek asylum- as is permitted under U.S. law. The border wall, upon which the president is fixated and determined to build, would do little if anything to stop them.

So the White House answer, it would appear, would be to devote scarce federal resources to punishing Trump's political adversaries and inflicting more cruelty on children, many of whom arrive in poor health.

There are sensible, effective steps to be taken. The longer-term one would be addressing the conditions that are driving migrants to leave their home countries in the first place. Instead, the Trump administration has reduced foreign aid, and threatened to cut it off entirely if the governments of crime-ridden Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador continue to, in Trump's words, "allow their citizens" to leave for the United States.

More immediately, what is needed are hundreds more immigration judges to deal with a historically high backlog of around 800,000 cases, to determine which should be justifiably regarded as meriting asylum. Also badly needed are expanding the detention centers that currently exist and making them more suitable for families.

But instead, Trump is reported to be considering reinstating some version of the family-separation policy that he had to reverse last year, and now, we learn, has been dreaming up more barbaric schemes. What comes next for these families might be even more horrifying than what we have seen.

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Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics. She joined The Post in 2010 from Time magazine and has also worked at the Los Angeles Times.

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