Originally Published in The Intercept
Mehdi Hasan - July 23, 2020
IT’S BEEN TWO years since the peak of public outcry over the Trump administration’s decision to begin separating the children of unauthorized migrant families from their parents at the Mexican border, yet the massive crisis that policy spawned remains arguably the darkest chapter in Donald Trump’s very dark presidency. MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff has been back and forth from the border and Central America covering the family separation saga since it began, a story he chronicles in his new book “Separated”.
Jacob Soboroff: I think it’s a slow-motion, ongoing, decades-long American tragedy.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan.
Whatever happened to all those kids who were stolen from their parents at the border? Why did we just forget about perhaps the biggest scandal, the worst crime, of the Trump presidency?
JS: It was not thought through. There was no plan. And today, we’re still picking up the pieces in the aftermath.
MH: That’s my guest today Jacob Soboroff, NBC News and MSNBC correspondent, and author of the new book “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.” He’s been covering this crisis, this scandal, at the border from the very beginning.
So, on today’s show, the war on migrants and, especially, the theft of migrant children from their parents: How and why did it happen, and is it even truly over?
Do you remember this?
[Audio clip from ProPublica of children crying at the border.]
MH: That was a recording of 10 Central American children, sobbing desperately after being separated from their parents in June of 2018, here in the United States. That was a recording obtained by ProPublica and which promptly went viral and grabbed newsheadlines — it was even played in the White House briefing room.
That recording helped make ordinary Americans aware of the abuses that were being perpetrated at their southern border, in their name, by the federal government, by the Trump administration — specifically, and shamefully, the deliberate, systematic separation of thousands of brown-skinned migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border on the orders of President Donald J. Trump.
And, for a few months in 2018, what was called “child separation” was the biggest story in America, if not the world:
Newscaster: Families are being torn apart. Thousands of them.
Anderson Cooper: Kids taken hundreds, even thousands, of miles away from their parents. Young children — toddlers, even — housed in so-called “tender-age facilities.”
Jeff Sessions: If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally.
Prime Minister Theresa May: The pictures of children being held in what appeared to be cages are deeply disturbing.
Newscaster: The Pope labelling it “immoral.”
MH: Two years later, though, we have kinda moved on, as a media industry, and as a nation. To be fair, so many other Trump scandals have sucked up so much oxygen since — whether it was the government shutdown, the Mueller inquiry, Ukraine and the whole impeachment saga, the attacks on protesters in recent weeks, and, of course, the ongoing catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. There’s so much to keep track of — and to keep us outraged.
Still, for me personally, it stands as the biggest, most outrageous, most shocking, most inexcusable scandal of the Trump presidency so far. What’s blandly called “child separation” was, in fact, racism, kidnapping, and child abuse all rolled into one.
In fact, Physicians for Human Rights in a report earlier this year said the Trump family separation policy constituted “torture.” Torture! On American soil. The torture of kids. Kids!
It is difficult to overstate the sheer inhumanity of it all: children were forcibly removed from the arms of their parents; babies were ripped from the breasts of their mothers. And the border agents who did all this somehow went home to their families, to their own kids, and slept fine at night.
Meanwhile, the people in Washington who gave them those orders, who made the cruel and inhumane policies, they’re either still in government, having never faced any real consequences for their part in these crimes; or, in the case of former Trump Chief-of-Staff General John Kelly, or former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, they’re making money in the private sector. In fact, Kelly is on the board of a company called Caliburn International which operates shelters for migrant children! You cannot make this shit up.
These people are vile. They have no shame. Many current and former members of this administration — including the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions — claim to be evangelical Christians. And, yet, they have defended — excused — the torture and abuse of not just refugees but refugee children. They’re not following in the footsteps of Christ; they’re a moral disgrace.
Since the summer of 2017, the Trump administration is believed to have taken at least 5,500 kids from their parents at the border — although the real number could be even higher than that. No one knows for sure. In February of this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said, “it is unclear the extent to which Border Patrol has accurate records of separated [families] in its data system.” And as reporter Jacob Soboroff writes in his new book, “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy”: “There are families who were quickly put back together, and children who were, as predicted, permanently orphaned.”
As I pointed out on this show back in 2018, that was not a side effect of having a tough immigration policy; that was their tough immigration policy. That was the goal, the prime objective — of an administration filled with white nationalists and apologists for white nationalists; an administration whose immigration policies are drawn up by a man, Stephen Miller, who late last year was revealed to have sent white nationalist literature and racist stories about immigrants in internal emails. No discussion, in fact, about the immigration policies of this administration can be complete without mentioning the racism, and white nationalism, and just pure cruelty that motivates and drives those policies.
So yes, this administration has used kids, targeted kids, migrant kids, refugee kids, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, the most powerless of the powerless, to achieve their policy goals at the border: to crack down on immigration, to placate their far right base, and keep brown people out of the U.S. by any means necessary.
And here’s what’s so important to remember as we sit here, overwhelmed by news and scandal, in the crazy, chaotic summer of 2020 — it never really ended. Hundreds of migrant children continued to be detained in facilities across the country this year, even as the coronavirus spread inside of those facilities, and infected guards and detainees alike.
Last month, a federal judge in LA ordered the release of those kids by the middle of this month. And guess how the Trump administration responded on Tuesday? By telling the court that if they’re forced to release the kids, they won’t release any of the parents who they might be detained with. Got that? Family separation, all over again.
Imagine being the parents of those kids. Keep your kids with you and risk the coronavirus, or have them taken from you and sent out into the world, and who knows if you’ll ever see them again?
What’s called “child separation” is still with us, is still a policy dream of the Trump administration, and yet a total nightmare for the thousands of refugees and asylum seeker families who arrive in this country from Central America every year, seeking protection from war, from violence, from rape.
MH: My guest today is one of the tenacious, and I should add, deeply compassionate journalists who helped uncover the Trump administration’s vile policy of child torture at the border back in 2018, and who not only contextualized the story for us on our TV screens, but also humanized it.
Jacob Soboroff, of NBC News and MSNBC, was, in fact, one of the first reporters to gain access to the notorious child detention facilities in Brownsville and McAllen, Texas. Here he is, reporting live on MSNBC from outside one of them in the summer of 2018, and not holding back:
JS: There’s a big mess going on right now, and even the Border Patrol inside this building says they’re overstaffed, they don’t have enough resources; the system is just getting stressed out because the Trump administration decided to put this into place, and the consequences really haven’t been worked out, and the biggest consequence of all is thousands of young children, in a way that has never been done before, taken from their parents. And when you hear the Trump administration saying: This has been done before, this is Democrat policy, this is not unusual — that’s B.S., frankly.
MH: Jacob’s reporting earned him the Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism and, with his colleagues, the 2019 Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism.
Now he’s written a powerful and, at times, heartbreaking new book about the entire saga, called “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy” — and he joins me now from Yuma, Arizona, just yards from the southern border with Mexico.
Jacob, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
JS: Thanks, Mehdi.
MH: You’ve written this new book, “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy,” having covered the 2018 crisis at the border with those kids in cages, with those children taken from their parents, almost exactly two years ago. Is this book, Jacob, about a chapter in recent American history? Or is this a book about what’s still happening right now — ongoing American tragedy?
JS: I think it’s a slow motion ongoing, decades-long American tragedy, Mehdi, and this is the first time I’ve ever done a podcast sitting 20 to 30 yards away from a 30-foot tall border wall installed by President Trump, which is exactly where I’m sitting right now, in Yuma, as I wait for him to arrive here.
You know, the wall, and Donald Trump, have become a symbol of United States immigration policy. This is an immigration policy, however, that has, as I said, spanned decades, and Democratic, and Republican administrations. And since an official Border Patrol doctrine in 1994, called “Prevention Through Deterrence,” the goal of which was to deter migrants from coming to the United States to make them go on a dangerous and deadly journey, where they very well could die trying to get into the United States. Deterrence, pain, and suffering has been a part of U.S. immigration policy and family separations, which I had the misfortune of seeing with my own eyes, was Donald Trump’s extreme extension of that policy.
MH: Yes, the extreme extension, as you say. You’re right to say that this started on previous presidents’ watches — you know, Bill Clinton in the 90s, George Bush, Barack Obama, “the Deporter-in-Chief,” and then you have Trump escalating in this grotesque way. A total of around 4,300 children I believe, “separated from their parents at the border.” This all came to a head in May/June 2018.
So a question that I think a lot of listeners will want to know the answer to — I know I do — do we know for sure, Jacob, if all of those children were eventually reunited with their families?
JS: We don’t. And if it weren’t for the ACLU and a federal judge in San Diego, the vast majority of them may never have been. It was a negligent, dangerous approach at putting this policy into place — sloppy. And the mechanism by which the separations were tracked, I think it actually would be even generous to call it a mechanism: It was not thought through, there was no plan. And today, we’re still picking up the pieces in the aftermath.
And you mentioned a number in the 4,000 range. I think the most recent number according to the ACLU, and this is a constantly evolving number, is over 5,000 children, including children separated after the policy had nominally ended, when Donald Trump signed the executive order on June 20, 2018, ending a policy that days earlier, he said, didn’t even exist.
MH: Yes. First it didn’t exist, and then when they stopped it, it still carried on, as you point out, even after the judicial and executive order fallout.
Um, let me ask you this: One thing that bothers me, and I don’t want to knock the title of your excellent book, because I know how hard it is to come up with a title, and I know that separated is the word that’s been used by everyone — even by me, on occasion, as shorthand — to describe this zero-tolerance policy at the border, and what the Trump administration did to migrant families back in 2018.
But, for me, “separated” always feels like an understatement. It feels too clinical, an empty word. Because what happened was child theft; it was child kidnapping. It was, in many ways, child abuse by the U.S. government. And I worry sometimes that our journalistic shorthand often ends up underplaying how bad things are on the ground; they sanitize things too much. Am I being unfair?
JS: No, I think your point is well taken. And the reason I chose “separated,” as well, is that for me, it doesn’t just describe torture, frankly. And that’s the word that Physicians for Human Rights, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization has used subsequently to describe what these children went through: It meant the clinical definition of torture. But it also described most Americans’ mental separation from how we got to this point; inability to understand and comprehend —
MH: Yeah. Good point.
JS: — how the government did this to children and, in some cases, babies. And that also includes me! I was covering the border even before Donald Trump became president, when Barack Obama was president and was dubbed the “Deporter-in-Chief,” as you mentioned, by immigration activists. I, you know, I was on what I thought was the front lines of immigration reporting, and frankly, I completely missed it myself until it slapped me in the face.
And that’s what I wanted to make clear in the book, is that separated is not just the physical act of what happened to these parents and children, but it really also is a mental state of most Americans about the way that we deal with immigration in this country. So, you know, again, your point is well taken. I think that it’s much more vile what happened to these children than the simple word or simple act of being taken from their parents, but I think that the word also applies to many of us in our everyday lives.
MH: No, that’s a very fair point. And I would urge everyone to read Jacob’s book. It’s an excellent book. You tell the story of José in the book, a young boy from Northern Guatemala, that story is a central thread throughout your book. He fled with his father Juan to the United States in order to escape drug traffickers who were threatening his family. Can you tell us a little bit more about José? Why did you choose his story?
JS: Well, the truth of the matter is, and this is a bit of a spoiler, but I ultimately met his father Juan, and Juan and José are pseudonyms that they picked themselves to protect their own identity and the identity of their family that they left behind in Guatemala. But they come from the northern state of Petén. And Petén, which is actually a place I haven’t been to, and they asked me not to go to — I’ve been to Guatemala on several occasions, but I didn’t go to their home because they were worried about what might happen to their wife they left behind.
They were threatened with violence. Juan was the owner of a small convenience store, and basically got into trouble after a vehicle that he sold was sold to someone else, and fell into the hands of what he tells me, and told the United States government in his asylum application, were narco traffickers, he suspected. And until he would turn over the rights, the documentation, which he no longer had to his car, they were going to put a threat on his life.
And so he decided to pick up and leave with José, come to the United States, go to Arizona, where he had crossed twice successfully before to come and work earlier in his life when his son was was younger, but, for the first time, decided to pick up and leave with his boy to protect him.
JS: And once they got to the United States, to the place where they thought represented safety and security, I’m actually sitting probably 10 miles away from that exact spot right now — and the president will visit almost that exact spot, as I speak to you today, as we record this — they were taken from each other in a way that nobody could have ever anticipated, even though it was going on by the time they left Guatemala and started their journey to the United States in May of 2018.
MH: So, it’s interesting, you mentioned in the context of Juan, that he had crossed twice before, for work, this time he came to protect his child. We have this great debate, of course, as you know better than me, about are these people refugees and asylum seekers or are they all economic migrants coming to work? In your anecdotal experience, having interviewed so many of these people, having covered their stories, what were they? Especially back in 2018, when it kind of hit the headlines in that huge way, when everyone in the country is talking about: Why have they brought children with them, etc, etc?
How many people you were talking to, were, in your, you know, the story you just tell of Juan, that sounds like a genuine asylum application?
JS: And I have no reason to doubt them.
JS: You know, and I think the vast majority of people I came into contact with were coming to the United States from Central America — from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador — in order to seek asylum.
You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And when I was writing the book, I was thinking a lot about this, that nobody’s perfect. And actually, when I heard the Reverend Al Sharpton deliver the eulogy for George Floyd and use the biblical example of a rejected stone becoming the cornerstone, you know, in our conversation about race, and about police brutality, and violence, it made me think of covering immigration at the border.
Nobody is perfect. Nobody comes here with a sparkling clean record or the perfect story that you want to hold up and make an example to change the entire country’s imagination on immigration.
JS: He had come here before, twice, illegally. He freely admitted it to me. And he laughed and smiled when he said: They didn’t catch me previously. And I think it’s not mutually exclusive; you can be an economic migrant and also, later in your life, become a refugee from violence. And I think, too often, we boil it down to: it’s one or the other.
JS: But these stories often intersect. And I think we do a disservice, or the general public does a disservice, when we try to distill it to one or another because, oftentimes, that really isn’t the case.
MH: And it’s not just Latin American families that we’re talking about, of course. You describe a Congolese mother and her daughter who was separated trying to enter the U.S.; you say “the mother was taken to an adult immigration jail in San Diego, and her daughter was sent to a shelter in Chicago.” You also say that when she was told her daughter was in Chicago, she did not know what the word meant.
How do people like that woman and her daughter a) end up at the southern border? And how is their story different to some of the more familiar Latin American stories that you tell in your reporting?
JS: Well, I think that the southern border has become an entry point for people from around the world looking to seek refuge in the United States and seek asylum. And if it wasn’t for that Congolese woman and her daughter, who later became known as Ms. L., none of these 5,000-plus families would have been reunited, because she became the plaintiff, the original plaintiff, in the ACLU case —
JS: — against the government. And so what happened to her, and her story, was slightly different. She presented legally at the San Ysidro port of entry in between San Diego and Tijuana, where you can legally walk up and declare asylum as part of an internationally recognized legal process. And the United States government told her they didn’t believe her, took her away from her daughter, and not until a DNA test confirmed it, were they placed back together. But that wasn’t soon enough to stop the thousands of separations, you know, from happening.
And that’s another example, Mehdi, of it’s never a perfect story. You know, she thought she was doing it the right way, but the United States government challenged her on that, and it set off, you know, this whole chain of events.
MH: I think we’ve learned over the last four years that, for this administration, there is no right way of claiming asylum or coming into the country.
JS: Sure. That’s right. That’s right.
MH: They just don’t want people coming into the country.
You describe in the book the moment in June 2018, when then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen infamously tweeted, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
You say, in the book: “My eyes widened when I saw it. You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. Come on.”
Where were you at that moment? And why did that tweet from her so stun you?
JS: Because earlier that week, I was inside the McAllen Border Patrol Processing Center — they call it Ursula in the Border Patrol, and that’s in McAllen, South Texas, where they let us in.
Katie Waldman, who later became Katie Miller, the wife of Stephen Miller, and now the Vice President’s communications director, was, at the time, a spokesperson for Kirstjen Nielsen. She invited me and another group of journalists into that center to see with our own eyes what family separations look like, because I think they believed that with outrage from the general public based on media attention, Congress would do what the Trump administration wanted, which was pass more restrictive order regulations. Of course, that backfired.
And the reason that I was was so flabbergasted by what Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted is that days earlier, if not hours earlier, I had been inside the center where I saw, with my own eyes, separated children sitting on concrete floors, covered by those silver blankets, under a security contractor in a watchtower. It makes me sick every time I talk about it. It gives me the chills every time I talk about it, as — then — the father of a two-year-old boy.
It was — and I don’t know —I really don’t know another way to describe it other than disgusting, to see social workers standing around Border Patrol agents, not allowed to touch the children, all because of official government policy when many of the families in there didn’t know what they were about to experience themselves, you know, to this day leaves me speechless. And to hear the Secretary of Homeland Security, who I didn’t know at the time, but I now know in writing the book, had signed the policy into place — it is just wrong. There’s no other way to say it.
MH: I mean, this is an administration that says openly: Don’t believe the evidence in front of your eyes, don’t believe what you see with your own eyes, and don’t believe what you hear with your own ears. It’s the gaslighters-in-chief.
You say, early in the book, you sum things up this way, you say: “What I have now unequivocally learned is that the Trump administration’s family separation policy was an avoidable catastrophe, made worse by people who could have made it better at multiple inflection points.”
In what sense, Jacob, was it avoidable, given that we already had a president clearly bent on implementing harsh border policies? Who or what around him could have stopped it?
JS: Well, in particular, you know, Scott Lloyd, who was the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, was warned on multiple occasions about the damage — the long-lasting trauma — that family separations would do to children. And, ostensibly, this was the man who was the custodian of the thousands of migrant children in the custody of the United States government. And, in particular, Jonathan White, commander in the U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps, under Health and Human Services, has testified publicly to this — that he warned Scott Lloyd about the long-lasting damage that separations would do to these children. (Scott Lloyd, of course, is the same official who tried to ban abortions in HHS custody for young migrant girls.)
And the bottom line is when you look at the actions of Scott Lloyd, he did anything but stop family separations from happening. One official later told me that he believed that this was the greatest human rights catastrophe of his lifetime, in seeing this take place under the leadership of Scott Lloyd. And had the career officials in HHS, child welfare professionals, whose motto is not only to do no harm, like in the medical profession, but to put the best interest of the clients first — and that’s the children — this never would have happened. The best interests of the children were very obviously not put first here.
JS: The officials of HHS and the professionals were certainly pushing for that all along.
MH: And there were a lot of people involved in this process, none of whom resigned on principle, none of whom came out and became a whistleblower at that time, which says a lot about how certain people’s morals are corrupted working in this administration.
Just to go back to an earlier point you made about this being a decades-long tragedy, a lot of Trump officials and Trump supporters — and some on the left — say it’s unfair to pin what you call “an American tragedy” wholly on Trump, because it was the Obama administration that built many of the cages that were used in 2018; it was the Obama administration that put unaccompanied minors from Central America in detention. There was a big overlap between a lot of their policies and practices at the southern border, between those two administrations. What do you say to them?
JS: Well, in some measure, they’re right. I mean, the Obama administration did build the McAllen Border Patrol Processing Center where I saw the children in cages. Those cages were built by the Obama administration. And they believe that that was the best option at the time. Certainly activists and immigration rights lawyers and such didn’t believe that, and were extremely vocal in voicing their opposition at the time.
The Trump administration had the opportunity to go in a different direction. They never signaled that that was their intention. In fact, they always signaled a harsher immigration policy than the Obama administration. But they didn’t have to institute the family separation policy; the Obama administration considered implementing the family separation policy. Some of the same officials within the Department of Homeland Security brought it up. And in the book I talk about how on Valentine’s Day, 2017, less than a month into the Trump administration, some of the officials that overlapped from the Obama administration into the Trump administration, basically revived — resuscitated — a policy, a rejected, discarded policy, that even the Obama administration, which was was not beloved by immigration activists, put the side.
JS: And this was a conscious, deliberate decision by the Trump administration to move forward with something that they knew all along was a deterrence policy, that was so bad, it would try to scare people away from coming to the United States. And John Kelly, when he was the secretary of homeland security in March of 2017, admitted freely on CNN.
MH: So, just to be clear, what Trump did in 2018 at the border with these “separations” is much worse than anything Obama, or, for that matter, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton did at the border; that is fair to say based on your own reporting and research in this book?
JS: Well, the reason I say that this was unprecedented was that it was “systematic child abuse,” in the words of Physicians for Human Rights or American Academy [of] Pediatrics, at the hands of the Trump administration — deliberate, systematic child abuse or torture.
The Obama administration, the Clinton administration, the Bush administration all had their own very harsh deterrence policies; I’m sitting in Arizona now where hundreds of people have died trying to cross in the desert because of border infrastructure walls, like the ones I’m looking at in front of my face as I talk to you. But never was the policy directed specifically at children for the purpose of hurting parents and children. And therein is the difference.
MH: Good point.
JS: I mean, that’s where the Trump administration took it to a level that had never been seen before. It doesn’t mean that, for a long time, there haven’t been cruel, harsh, and deadly immigration policies.
MH: But, in this case, it was a stated policy to cause harm in order to stop people from coming.
JS: That’s for sure. And they would never admit that, that the purpose was to hurt children. But when you say deterrence, you have to be deterred by something — and the something, here, was trauma.
MH: So, you paint a picture in the book of a president who — shock! horror! — is, you know, over his head. You know, he’s out of control, but he also doesn’t know what he’s doing. There’s a huge culture of fear around him, you say, in the White House. You talk about the chaos surrounding this policy; obviously, we know very much about the Trump administration’s incompetence when it comes to any area of public policy.
But in my view, there’s also not enough discussion in our industry, Jacob, in the ‘liberal media,’ about the ideology that drives a lot of Trump’s immigration policy. This is not just them trying to look tough or messing up. You have a White House that openly plays footsie with white nationalists.
MH: And a top Trump advisor, Stephen Miller, who leads on this issue, and who is at best, an apologist for white nationalism, at worst, a card carrying white nationalist himself; this is a guy who the Southern Poverty Law Center, the SPLC, has thoroughly documented by his own leaked emails, has promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories, obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols. And yet, we just don’t talk about it as much as we should. It’s like we’re too polite to mention the open white nationalism from this White House when we talk about immigration and border controls.
JS: Another way to put it is that the target of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies are more often than not brown people —
JS: — who come to the southern border where the majority of people who enter this country illegally, or ultimately stay in this country illegally, come via airplane from countries other than Central America or Latin America by overstaying visas.
And the Trump administration has not — or did not, at that time — target visa overstays as their primary concern, when that was, by definition, by numbers, where most people who were in the United States ‘illegally’ were coming from. The policy has always been, the ire has always been targeting people with a different skin color coming from the southern border, and not at the majority of people who are entering the country and staying in the country illegally.
And, you said it. I mean, that’s why this policy is, or was — I guess you could still say is, family separations are still happening — racist. I mean, this is not a policy that is being targeted at people who are flying here and staying here after going to school or getting a job or some other form of immigration to the United States. He’s targeting people who come through the southern border, period.
MH: Just to clarify for our listeners, you say family separation is still happening. Just briefly, how is it still happening?
JS: Well, the Trump administration is giving families an option: either separate, or be deported, or held indefinitely in family detention. That’s called binary choice. It’s the type of policy that’s being put forward.
You won’t be surprised to learn, Mehdi, that nobody is selecting family separation as an option when they’re presented with it.
JS: But it is still an option that the Trump administration is giving migrants in custody. It’s a catch-22 situation, you know? Either get kicked out of the country and your child stays here, and be in indefinite family detention with your child, or separate from your child, let your child go free, but you won’t see your child, because you’ll, you know, you’ll continue to be detained. It’s just family separation with a different mechanism.
MH: The ‘family separation crisis of 2018,’ I think we would agree, Jacob, was one of the biggest crises, one of the most horrifying episodes of the Trump presidency. And given how many big crises and horrific episodes there have been over the past four years, that’s a pretty high bar that it met. And even by the standard of awful Trump scandals, this one stood out.
And yet he survived. The people around him survived. A lot of people just forgot about it. Washington, the media, largely moved on. If we hadn’t moved on, if there had been consequences — for the lies, the law-breaking, the racism, the child abuse — do you think we might have avoided or even been better prepared for many of the other Trump crises that have since followed it?
JS: It’s such a good question. I would like to think so, but that goes back to the separation from the American public about what’s happening and why.
And so often, I find, that too many of us are disconnected from the reality of what’s going on in our country. It’s too easy to look around in our own neighborhood —
JS: — to talk about our own concerns versus what’s happening at the border.
I’ll give you one example. I went to Tornillo, where they had that tent city in the wake of the separation crisis and all the migrant boys housed there. And I write about this in the book, I asked a local farmer growing pomegranates what his main concern was, and he said the production of food. And this was a man that was a stone’s throw away from thousands of kids being locked up in a tent in 100-degree heat in the middle of the South Texas desert.
And, you know —
JS: — I’ll never forget that. Because, you know, if, if he’s gonna forget about it, or if it’s not going to be top of mind for him, it isn’t going to be for people in suburban America either. And which is why, I think, you know, just it was so important to me to write this book, not just to remind people of this, but to answer those questions for myself: How could this possibly have happened? How could we possibly have moved on? You know, and what is it gonna take for this to not happen again?
MH: Well, I’m so glad you wrote the book and one of the issues that really bothers me is that there’s been very little accountability for the main players in this saga.
Former Trump Chief-of-Staff, former DHS Secretary General John Kelly went off to work in the private sector. He even joined the board of Caliburn International, a company that operates the largest shelter for unaccompanied migrant children —oh, the irony. His successor as DHS secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, was invited as recently as October last year to speak at Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women’s Summit in Washington, D.C.. There doesn’t seem to have been much accountability.
JS: Not just no accountability, many but some of these people have been put in charge of the response or at least on the team to the coronavirus outbreak that’s killed over 100,000 people in this country. In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, I remember sitting at home on lockdown like everybody else, watching, up on the podium, Chad Wolf, now the acting secretary of homeland security — then, a top deputy to Kirstjen Nielsen — who, as my colleague Julia Ainsley first reported, was involved in the drafting of the initial family separation policy to be presented to her.
Katie Waldman, as I mentioned, was the spokeswoman for Kirstjen Nielsen and is now the spokeswoman for the Vice President of the United States. It seems as though the people that were involved in the family separation policy have not been disciplined, or reprimanded, or faced accountability; on the contrary, they’ve been elevated to new positions. And you mentioned John Kelly, who’s started working with Caliburn, this company that is profiting off of the detention of child migrants in multiple facilities now, along the southwest border.
I would say that it’s baffling and stupefying, but, again, it’s just like you said — it’s another one of these consequence-less actions of the Trump administration that, you know, they seem to benefit from when, you know, common sense would say they should be punished.
MH: By the way, at that Fortune summit, my good friend Amna Nawaz of PBS News asked Kirstjen Nielsen if he regretted the so-called family separation policy.
Amna Nawaz: I’m asking you if you regret making that decision.
Kirstjen Nielsen: I don’t regret enforcing the law, because I took an oath to do that, as did everybody at the Department of Homeland Security. We don’t make the laws; we asked Congress to change the law, Congress reviewed the law in 2006 and decided to continue to make it illegal to cross in that manner.
MH: When you hear Nielsen saying that, Jacob, what’s your reaction?
JS: The same bewilderment that I felt when I saw her tweet that: “There is no family separation policy. Period.” I thought that that interview, by the way, was spectacular.
JS: And the line of questioning was perfect, because Kirstjen Nielsen is an expert in slipping away from questions about the family separation policy. If anyone should face accountability for the policy, it is her.
She had to sign, and I outline it in the book, a decision memo that sat on her desk with three options to implement the end of what was known as catch-and-release: the idea that migrants who come to the southern border would be released to the interior, with their families, until their immigration case would be adjudicated in the courts, until they had to show up for court. And by the way, many migrants — most migrants — do show up for that process, because they want to attain asylum in this country.
She chose of the three options, the most severe, the most punitive of family separations. It was a deliberate and clear decision by her; she had to sign her name — literally on the dotted line — for the policy. And the idea that she doesn’t face any responsibility for this, that it wasn’t something that she ultimately would come to regret, I just don’t believe it. I don’t — knowing what I know about her, having sat face-to-face with her at the start of this policy — I do not believe that that is truly the way that she feels. And I know, certainly, that she knows the responsibility that she bears for it.
JS: And like every ex-Trump official, especially once he leaves office, everyone’s going to be spinning how they were actually resisting inside the administration — they were the good guys pushing back against awful policies from the top.
And we focus a lot on Trump, and we should focus also on these ex-Trump officials who are trying to rehabilitate themselves; they should really be shunned by polite society. But sadly, we know Washington, D.C.: they won’t be, they aren’t being shunned. And that’s depressing.
One last question for you, Jacob. Given what you saw with your own eyes, what you heard in terms of testimony from some of these parents and children — the trauma of it, as you put it — how hard a book was this for you to write.
JS: Well, certainly not as hard as being separated from your child, indefinitely, in the minds of a lot of these parents. It was — it was difficult to revisit. But covering family separations is something that will have changed me, forever, for my entire life. I think there’s a lot of people out there who, having watched the story — not just from my coverage, but from the wonderful journalism that was done, you know, during and after this policy — you know, it’s changed a lot of people.
And, for me, this was something that I wanted to do to answer questions that I didn’t know the answer to in real time. And it’s also something that I wanted to do for Juan and José, because the reason that they decided to participate in this story with me was so that it never happens again. And I really mean that. You know, I don’t know if it’s kosher to say that as a journalist, that covering this, and writing this book, you know, for me has a specific and — what I hope — is a positive outcome. But that’s really what this was about for me.
And to revisit it was, was difficult. But it’s nothing compared to what Juan and José and 5,000 other children went through.
MH: Jacob, congratulations on an important book. Thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.
JS: Thank you, Mehdi. Appreciate it.
MH: That was Jacob Soboroff, author of the new book “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.”