June 23, 2018 6:30 AM

Anger about family separation is universal, but as the anti-Trump furor becomes an appeal for what amounts to open borders, any political advantage for Democrats from the controversy looks like a mirage.

In the past week, we were reminded of the unsurprising fact that a broad cross section of Americans — liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats — are appalled at the idea of separating children from their parents. But even after President Trump finally backed down and issued an executive order for authorities to “detain alien families together,” the controversy over the plight of illegal immigrants and their kids continues.

Part of that is Trump’s fault, as he continues to stoke the fires of anger over illegal immigration on the right and to depict the anguish of those who have been apprehended at the border as merely sob stories concocted to embarrass him. During the last week as illegals and their children replaced Stormy Daniels and her lawyer as what seemed to be the sole topic of conversation on CNN, emotion dominated the discussion. But whether or not Trump can find a way to preserve a strategy of “zero tolerance” for those illegally entering the United States that also keeps families together, it has become apparent that the focus of the protests against his policies isn’t merely about gratuitous cruelty. Indeed, it’s clear that, for most of those continuing to protest, while keeping families together was a useful wedge issue, the discussion about what is happening at the border is more or less the same one that we’ve been having in this country for the past few years. At stake in this debate is not how to enforce immigration laws but whether we should do so at all.

The over-the-top rhetoric and avalanche of grossly inappropriate analogies to the Holocaust have served those opposing Trump well so far. But feeding the overall impression that any effort to stop illegal immigration, no matter how careful it is to avoid cruelty, is inhuman is not without some cost. If every person entering the U.S. without permission — whether they come for economic opportunity or are fleeing violence in Central America — is the moral equivalent of a Holocaust victim seeking refuge and those seeking to stop them are all hatemongers or monsters violating human rights, then we’ve arrived at a point when the law and policy arguments about how best to enforce it have become irrelevant.

In such a debate, there is no more middle ground. No matter what your opinion about how much immigration the United States should allow or whether illegal immigrants already here should be given a break, the firestorm over the children at the border has made this discussion impossible. This is not just a rerun of the argument Americans have been conducting about what to do about the estimated 11 million plus illegal immigrants that were already here during the Obama administration and whether they deserved some form of amnesty up to and including a path to citizenship. Now the appeal for not merely mercy and compassion but for amnesty applies to those crossing the border now, with or without children.

The political impact of this development has made the already dim chances of passing any sort of compromise on immigration — even on the status of those brought here illegally as children — even more difficult to reach.

In part this is because Democrats believe the furor over the children might be the silver bullet they’ve been searching for to decisively defeat Trump and help generate a blue wave at the polls in the midterm elections this fall. At this point, they have no incentive to solve any problems since the more grief at the border and the greater the volume of emotional images (even if some, such as the picture of a weeping child that was used on a Time magazine cover with a photo of Trump, has turned out to be misleading since that little Honduran girl was not separated from her mother), the more the issue is perceived as a Hurricane Katrina moment for the president.

This has created a race to the left on immigration among Democrats that will doom any hope of a deal on any of these issues. For example, former actress Cynthia Nixon, who is mounting a vocal and well-funded challenge to Andrew Cuomo’s effort to be re-elected governor of New York, wasn’t content to merely match her opponent’s criticisms of Trump. She promised to give all illegal aliens access to drivers’ licenses so as to make it harder for federal authorities to arrest them. Even worse, she is now demanding — to the applause of the hosts and the audience on The View where she appeared — that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency be abolished altogether and not replaced by any other body to perform the function of apprehending illegals.

At this point, it is hard to see what this all amounts to other than an argument for open borders. And that is why, once the anger about the images and audio of crying children are no longer the only topic of discussion, this controversy may not be the decisive political edge Democrats think it is.

As much as immigration hawks are having a difficult time being heard amid the current furor, the spread of the sanctuary movement in this manner is highlighting the lack of a policy alternative to Trump’s focus on border security. Merely accusing him of spreading or unleashing hate against immigrants is not a substitute for a policy that treats border security as anything but a right-wing talking point.

That’s why the long-term political consequences of this issue are not likely to be as severe as Democrats hope and Republicans fear. The absurdity of the effort to depict a population of migrants that are not so much in fear for their lives as they are seeking a better life as if they were all marked for death in their home countries cannot be sustained. Nor is it reasonable to treat ICE officials as if they were anything but employees of a government agency seeking to uphold the rule of law.

Democrats and sanctuary advocates have also, albeit unwittingly, validated the position of those who argued against the amnesty provisions of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” bill because they believed it would set off another wave of illegal immigration, much as a similar reform bill had done in the 1980s. Far from seeking to secure the border — if only to justify a path to citizen for those already here illegally — the appeal for mercy now seems to extend to every citizen of every Latin American nation with a drug and crime problem and to damn those opposing this position as hard-hearted racists.

All of which means that, far from having shifted its opinion, the country remains as split on how to fix U.S. immigration laws as it was in 2013 or in 2016. Trump’s rhetoric on the issue may be excessive and inappropriate. But so long as his opponents have nothing to offer but amnesty in one form or another, his stand appears reasonable to many if not most Americans who believe the sanctuary movement is an attack on the rule of law and that this country has as much right to police its borders as any other on the planet. In such an atmosphere, any notion of there being an overwhelming Democratic advantage on immigration is as bogus as the photo-shopped cover of Time.