Attorneys are still trying to reach the parents of 368 migrant children who had been separated at the US-Mexico border under the Trump administration, down from 391 last month, according to a federal court filing Wednesday.

“Coming here, we lost it all.”

That’s what Néstor, 14, says now about his journey to the U.S. three years ago.

Four months into the Biden administration’s efforts to reunite migrant families who were separated at the border during the Trump administration, a total of three dozen families have been cleared to be reunified in the United States.

More than 3,900 children were separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance policy,” according to a report from a task force designed to reunify migrant families.

A review concluded that there were 5,636 family-child separations from mid-2017 to January 2021, but that only 3,913 children fell under the task force’s scope.

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Originally published by The Intercept

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.

[Musical interlude.]

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.

[Musical interlude.]

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 Jose 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 Jose? 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 Jose 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 Peten. And Peten, 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 Jose, 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.

MH: Yeah.

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.

MH: Yeah.

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.

MH: Yes.

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.

MH: Yes.

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 –

MH: Yes.

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.

MH: Yeah.

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.

MH: Yes.

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.

JS: Mhmm.

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 –

MH: Yes.

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.

MH: Yeah.

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 –

MH: Yep.

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 –

MH: Wow.

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.

MH: Yeah.

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 Jose, 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 Jose 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.

[Musical interlude.]

MH: That was Jacob Soboroff, author of the new book Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.

And that’s our show! And we’re going to be on a little bit of a summer break, here on Deconstructed. The show will be back in August. Hope you’re all able to have a break too. Stay safe while we’re gone!

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much!

See you next month.

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Originally published by CNN

Senior Department of Health and Human Services officials failed to act on repeated warnings from staff about family separations at the US-Mexico border, and staff members were advised not to put controversial information in writing, according to a HHS inspector general report released Thursday.

The report provides a new look into how senior officials within the department tasked with caring for migrant children handled the Trump administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to thousands of children being separated from their families in 2018.
“It is not great for children to be separated from their parents,” but “I do not know what the moral right thing to do is in this situation,” the Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy, a position in the office of the secretary, conceded in an interview with the inspector general. The journey to the US-Mexico border is also dangerous, the person said.
Thursday’s 75-page report is the latest in a series of reports from government watchdogs detailing the consequences of the administration’s policy, including the emotional toll it took on children and the challenges in reunifying families. The new report builds upon those accounts and demonstrates inaction at senior levels of the department that left the federal agency tasked with caring for children unprepared.
The failure to take proactive measures for the potential of increased family separations put the federal agency in a position where it was reacting to changes, instead of preparing for them. The lack of planning, according to the report, contributed to the challenges staff faced in identifying separated children and reunifying them with their parents.
The Department of Health and Human Services houses the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency responsible for the care of unaccompanied migrant children. As a result, while it did not develop the “zero tolerance” policy, it was tasked with caring for the separated children.
Some senior HHS officials were hesitant to interfere with immigration enforcement policy, or advocate for the department’s mission in interagency forums, the report found.
“HHS suggestions regarding immigration policy were sometimes interpreted as obstructing law enforcement efforts,” the report stated, citing the HHS Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy.
The culture also discouraged staff from putting controversial information in writing. The report highlights an example in which an ORR employee who sent an email that included concerns about family separation was then told by a superior within the agency not to put those concerns in an email.
Staff members said they were “criticized” for documenting certain information as well.
“ORR staff recalled receiving repeated, general reminders to be cautious about putting information in writing, as well as being instructed to provide verbal-only briefings and offer verbal-only comments on certain matters,” according to the report.
The resulting limited paper trail hindered efforts to determine what occurred and how HHS can improve in the future.
“The lack of documentation may also have contributed to senior HHS officials’ ability to dismiss staffs’ concerns about capacity and children’s well-being rather than squarely address them,” the report says.
In its response to the report, HHS said that it “advocates vigorously for the downstream child welfare mission” and noting the agency doesn’t have a direct role in shaping immigration enforcement policy.

Lack of proactive preparations left federal agency unprepared

Staff faced particular challenges when trying to reach parents in detention. “[T]he facility called [the DHS detention center] every day seeking the parents of an 11-year-old child. They could not reach anyone. The child cried every day,” one facility program director said.
“Not knowing what happened to their parents haunted the children. We couldn’t tell them whether they would ultimately be reunited. It was challenging. We weren’t notified initially about how to connect parents with their kids. The kids had lots of questions, but we had no answers for them,” recalled a facility lead mental health clinician.
Last year, the Health and Human Services inspector general released a report detailing how migrant children who were separated from their parents experienced “heightened feelings of anxiety and loss,” according to accounts of facility staff.
Thursday’s report, which refers to the individuals by title only, is based on interviews, written responses, documents, as well as interagency correspondence and records that involved HHS senior officials and staff. It concludes that HHS needs to ensure it puts childrens’ interests first; formalizes agreements with the departments of Homeland Security and Justice; improves communication with care provider facilities; and streamlines procedures to identify and track separated children.
HHS has maintained that it wasn’t responsible for separating families. The inspector general report acknowledges that, but also notes its lack of planning made the situation worse.
“HHS was not responsible for separating families, but HHS’s inadequate communication, management, and planning made the situation worse for many separated children,” the report states, later adding: “Ultimately, HHS took a supportive public stance toward the zero-tolerance policy once enacted.” The policy ended in June 2018.

Staff begins to warn senior officials of family separation

During the summer of 2017, Office of Refugee Resettlement staff started noticing an unusually large number of separated children entering their care. In January 2018, months before the “zero tolerance” policy was announced, the then-deputy director for children’s programs at ORR also learned from Homeland Security staff that DHS had developed a projection of the number of children who would be turned over to the ORR under an enforcement policy that would increase the prosecution of adults at the border.
“I said ORR was seeing much higher levels of separation, and that those separations were impacting particularly babies and young children,” the former ORR deputy director for children’s programs told the inspector general. “I said this so many times that I was called a broken record.”
An ORR staff member also shared that they tried to alert officials. “I told them it was going to traumatize children to separate them unnecessarily. I said that to anyone I could,” the staff member said.
Despite those warnings, three senior HHS officials — the Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Administration for Children and Families and the ORR Director — failed to act.
The officials did not, according to the report, plan for the possibility of an increase in the number of separated children, press the topic in high-level meetings or other interagency forums, or elevate the matter within their department.
In interviews with the inspector general, the then-Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy and the Acting Assistant Secretary for ACF said they didn’t recall receiving information about increased numbers of separations in 2017 or discussions about child welfare concerns related to separation.
“If conversations occurred referring to separated children, it did not have the context of meaning it was children separated from parents…I either missed it in reporting or it was not reported up to me,” said the former Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services Policy.
The ORR director at the time confirmed he was informed of the increase of separated children in 2017, and was copied on outreach to US Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — two agencies within DHS — about the issue.
Scott Lloyd, the former ORR head, told lawmakers last year that he didn’t share concerns about family separation with superiors– a question prompted by an earlier testimony of an official who said he raised issues with the policy prior to implementation.
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Originally published by ProPublica

ProPublica and the Bronx Documentary Center are co-hosting an intimate talk on ProPublica’s groundbreaking Zero Tolerance investigative series on family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Reporters Ginger ThompsonTopher Sanders and Adriana Gallardo will give a behind-the-scenes look at how they exposed the realities of the controversial policy and what was happening inside detention facilities that were holding migrant children but were closed to public view. The reporters will also speak about their experiences bearing witness to a major crisis.

The event is being held in conjunction with the BDC exhibition Trump Revolution: Immigration, which explores through photography the impacts of various immigration policies advanced by the Trump administration. Getty Images special correspondent John Moore, whose work is featured in the exhibition – and whose famed image of a Honduran girl crying while her mother is detained by the U.S. Border Patrol won photo of the year at the World Press Photo Awards – will also join the discussion.

ProPublica’s Zero Tolerance series, which uncovered conditions at Border Patrol detention centers where thousands of children separated from their parents and unaccompanied minors have been sent, began with a source who had an explosive piece of information. Wanting to share it with a reporter they could trust, the source chose Thompson, a ProPublica senior reporter who has spent nearly 20 years writing about the consequences of federal policy on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The tip: nearly eight minutes of heart-wrenching audio of children inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.

This initial story set off a political firestorm and spurred an immediate change in the immigration debate, spurring the president to reverse his policy of separating children detained at the border from their parents. ProPublica went on to look deeper into how children had been affected by the policy, presenting powerful, in-depth accounts of their time in the U.S. immigration system.


  • Date: Saturday, March 14
  • Time: 6-9 p.m.
  • BDC Annex, 364 E. 151st St., Bronx, NY 10455
  • RSVP Here

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Originally published by The New York Times

As his long-lost son walked toward him in an airport terminal, a sobbing David Xol stretched out his arms, fell to one knee and embraced the boy for about three minutes, crying into his shoulder.

He had not held the child since May 2018, when border agents pulled then-7-year-old Byron away inside a detention facility. They were separated under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy – the father deported to Guatemala, the son placed in a series of government facilities before ending up with a host family in Texas.

Xol was one of nine parents who won the exceedingly rare chance to return to the U.S. after being deported under family separation. They arrived Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport to be reunited with children they hadn’t seen in a year and a half or longer under the order of a federal judge who found the U.S. government had unlawfully prevented them from seeking asylum.

After embracing, David stood and patted Byron, now 9, on the head. He was small, the father said. He grew a lot.

The reunion was a powerful reminder of the lasting effects of Trump’s separation policy, even as attention and outrage has faded amid impeachment proceedings and tensions with Iran. But it also underscored the fact that hundreds, potentially thousands, of other parents and children are still apart nearly two years after the zero-tolerance policy on unauthorized border crossings took effect.

They all kind of hit the lottery, said Linda Dakin-Grimm, an attorney who represents one of the parents returning to the U.S. “There are so many people out there who have been traumatized by the family separation policy whose pain is not going to be redressed.

More than 4,000 children are known to have been separated from their parents before and during the official start of zero tolerance in spring 2018. Under the policy, border agents charged parents en masse with illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, then placed their children in government facilities. The policy drew condemnation from around the world as stories emerged almost daily about screaming children, some as young as babies, forcibly taken away from parents.

In June 2018, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the government to stop separating families and reunite parents and children.

The U.S. has acknowledged that agents separated families long before they enforced zero tolerance across the entire southern border, its agencies did not properly record separations, and some detention centers were overcrowded and undersupplied, with families denied food, water or medical care.

At least 470 parents were deported without their children, in many cases because they were told to sign paperwork they couldn’t read or understand. Some of the kids were held in U.S. government facilities and ultimately placed with sponsors, usually family members. Others were deported to their home countries.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security referred a request for comment to the Justice Department, which did not respond.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the original family separation lawsuit before Sabraw, asked the judge to order the return of a small group of parents whose children remained in the U.S. In September, Sabraw required the U.S. to allow 11 parents to come back and denied relief to seven others.

Byron anxiously waited for his father to clear immigration authorities and emerge in the terminal so they could be back together for the first time since that fateful day on the border.

The mother who has taken Byron in and escorted him to the airport for the reunion tried to calm his nerves: They’re almost here, you’re doing great, Holly Sewell said. “Count to 1,000.

999, Byron responded.

Esvin Fernando Arredondo was also on the plane. The father from Guatemala was separated from one of his daughters, Andrea Arredondo – then 12 years old and now 13, after they turned themselves in on May 16, 2018, at a Texas crossing and sought asylum legally, according to his lawyer. Sabraw found that Arredondo had been deported after his order to the U.S. government not to remove any more parents separated from his children.

Andrea was separated from all family for about a month, living in a shelter as the government struggled to connect children with their parents because they lacked adequate tracking systems. She was finally reunited with her mother, who had turned herself in at the Texas crossing with the other two daughters four days earlier than her husband, on May 12, 2018.

She and her two daughters passed the initial screening interview for asylum, unlike her husband, even though they were fleeing for the same reason. Their son Marco, 17, was shot and killed by suspected gang members in Guatemala City.

Arredondo eventually emerged with the other parents. He hugged his three daughters. One of the girls, wearing a pink sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, held onto his chest as he spoke to reporters through his tears.

To live the way I lived was very difficult, he said.

His wife, Cleivi Jerez, 41, arrived at LAX less than an hour before the flight landed with their three daughters in tow. She planned to stay up late catching up with her husband before he has to report to an ICE office Friday in San Diego. Alison Arredondo, 7, said she missed going to the park with her father and she wanted to go to one with him in LA.

According to Holly Sewell, Byron grew three pant sizes and two shoe sizes just in the last six months. She said he has become much more secure and sometimes describes what his life was like in detention, especially if he sees stories about immigrant children on the news. His English has developed to the point that they no longer use a translation app to communicate.

Holly Sewell said she was thrilled Byron could see his dad again but sharply criticized the U.S. government’s treatment of asylum-seekers.

While the U.S. has stopped the large-scale separations, it has implemented policies to prevent many asylum-seekers from entering the country. Under its Remain in Mexico policy, more than 50,000 people have been told to wait there for weeks or months for U.S. court dates. The Trump administration also is ramping up deportations of Central Americans to other countries in the region to seek asylum there.

People want to make this a heartwarming story, but it’s not. It’s devastating, Sewell said. There is just no good reason why we had to do this to this child and this family. And he symbolizes thousands of others who have been put in this exact same position.


Merchant reported from Houston.

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Originally published by The New York Times

A U.S. judge ruled Monday that the Trump administration is operating within its authority when separating families stopped at the Mexico border, rejecting arguments that it was quietly returning to widespread practices that drew international condemnation.

The American Civil Liberties Union argued that the administration was splitting families over dubious allegations and minor transgressions including traffic offenses.

It asked the judge in July to rule on whether the government was justified in separating 911 children during the first year after the judge halted the general practice in June 2018.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw indicated he was uncomfortable second-guessing government decisions to separate children on grounds that parents were considered unfit or dangerous, or in other limited circumstances like criminal history, communicable diseases and doubts about parentage. He found no evidence that the government was abusing its discretion.

It is an invitation that is potentially massive in scope, invades an area that is particularly within the province of the executive branch to secure the nation’s border, and goes beyond this court’s class certification and preliminary injunction orders, which were focused on the administration’s practice of separating families at the border for the purpose of deterring immigration, and failing to reunify those families,” Sabraw wrote in a 26-page decision.

In a partial victory for the ACLU, the judge said the government must settle any doubts about parentage before separating families by using DNA tests that deliver results in about 90 minutes.

The ruling was a rare instance of the San Diego judge siding with the administration. In June 2018, he halted the practice of separating families under a zero tolerance policy to deter illegal immigration and ordered that about 2,800 children be quickly reunited with family. Lack of adequate tracking systems at the time made reunification a monumental task.

The judge later ordered the administration to identify more than 1,500 additional children who were separated earlier in Trump’s presidency, starting in July 2017. The government is providing information to the ACLU, which, in some cases, has volunteers going door to door in Guatemala.

The ACLU said it was considering its next move.

The court strongly reaffirmed that the Trump administration bears the burden if it attempts to separate families based on an accusation that the adult is not the child’s parent, said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt. We are evaluating the decision to determine next steps on how to ensure that children are not separated from their parents based on minor infractions.

The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The judge noted that the administration acknowledged it erred by separating a mother who needed emergency surgery and a father who was HIV-positive. He rejected the ACLU’s contention that some accusations of gang affiliation were unfounded, saying that the government relies on objective evidence, not allegations or intuition.”

Days before the judge halted the widespread practice of separating families in 2018, Trump retreated under extraordinary criticism by exempting families from his zero tolerance policy to criminally prosecute every adult who crosses the border illegally.

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