“Childhood Trauma Means a Century of Suffering”

In ‘Separated: Inside an American Tragedy,’ Jacob Soboroff lays out one of the darkest chapters in this nation’s history

Photo illustration, source: Guillermo Arias/Getty Images

On June 13, 2018, NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff became one of the first reporters to step into a shelter where more than 1,000 migrant children were detained, many after being forcefully separated from their families. “This place is called a shelter but these kids are incarcerated,” Soboroff said in a Twitter thread that went viral overnight.

That night would mark the start of Soboroffs journey as he tried to report why, and more importantly how, the Trump administration systematically tore apart migrant families in an attempt to deter others from coming into the United States. In his new book, Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, Soboroff pieces together how this shameful policy came to be, its disastrous implementation, and the inevitable fallout when the government found itself struggling to reunite thousands of families.

Soboroff spoke with GEN about his extensive reporting and why families are still being separated today.

GEN: Why did you write Separated?

Jacob Soboroff: I saw this take place in real time. I went into that former Walmart where they were holding 1,500 migrant boys. They were let outside two hours a day. It reminded me more of a prison than a shelter. I went into the epicenter in McAllen, Texas, and I saw children kept in cages after being separated from their parents.

I covered the story extensively for almost a year. I followed it religiously, obsessively. I would check regularly how many children had been reunited. Once I had a little bit of distance, I realized there was so much I didn’t know about how we got there, how this could have happened, how the government could have perpetrated this act of torture — in the words of Physicians for Human Rights — on thousands and thousands of children.

What about the system allowed this to happen? Who was behind it? What was this like for families? We all went through this concurrently at the same time: the officials, the families who were separated, and then myself as a reporter. I felt in aligning everybody’s experience side-by-side chronologically, I would learn a lot more, and I most definitely did.

Your reporting is pretty in-depth on the lead-up to the policy, how it was implemented, and then the fallout. What do you think readers should take away from your book?

For years, people warned the government about not only what separating families would entail — in terms of how it would harm children and their parents — but how it would be difficult to reunite them given the infrastructure that they had in place. The technological systems of Border Patrol, ICE, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement did not talk to each other. There were warnings all along, starting with ORR senior field specialist Jim De La Cruz and the Obama administration in 2016.

What I learned is that there were true heroes who were internally fighting tooth and nail at every step of the way to stop the Trump administration from doing this. While they failed to do so, it wasn’t like the administration was caught off guard or wasn’t warned when this reunification effort became such a spectacular disaster. It was exactly as they had been warned.

The incompetency and the cruelty themselves were astonishing. Why do you think the administration was so dysfunctional?

Because they didn’t care. They put politics ahead of humanity. This was a show of force. Then-Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman — who became Katie Miller when she married Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller — said as much to me. The policy was meant to create the images that they believed would force Congress to change the immigration laws so that unaccompanied children couldn’t come here; they’d have to be deported immediately, or they could detain families indefinitely instead of releasing them after 20 days. That’s still a fight that’s playing out right now.

You don’t let the Clinton, Bush, or Obama administrations off the hook either for creating the infrastructure that allows Trump to enforce his agenda.

I don’t think this would have been possible were it not for a multidecade immigration enforcement strategy based in deterrence. Deterrence is, by definition, trying to scare people away from coming here by presenting them with options that are not palatable. In 1994, during the Clinton administration, the Border Patrol had an official document called Prevention Through Deterrence, where they admitted that building the first wave of infrastructure — a wall — was going to send migrants through the desert. I’ve been out there. It’s dangerous, and the fact is people die trying to cross all the time. The Bush administration, post-9/11, expanded DHS exponentially, including the Border Patrol.

Obama deported more people than any other president and has very few fans in the world of immigration activism. He built the facility where I saw kids in cages. They weren’t for separating kids at the time, but Barack Obama and Joe Biden built the McAllen Border Patrol Processing Station. And look, Obama had the opportunity to separate kids. It went all the way to his DHS secretary and the head of the Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Muñoz, and they made the decision not to do this at a wide scale. He certainly did separate families but on a very limited basis, using the discretion of ICE and DHS to look at cases they believed to be dangerous conditions for the children. They had a policy of trying to maintain family unity. The Trump administration from its earliest days threw those plans out the window and started to move forward with the separation policy.

Basically, Donald Trump was teed up to do what he did because of decades of work by Democratic and Republican presidents.

The heart of the book is the story of Juan and José, a Guatemalan father and son who spent more than four months apart and in detention because of Trump’s separation policy. Why did you pick them as subjects?

I first met Juan when he was detained in the Adelanto Detention Facility, months after I started covering separations. He had been coerced into signing away the right to reunite with his teenage son José. I got to know them well. They admittedly don’t have the perfect immigration story. Juan told me honestly that he came here twice before as an economic migrant on his own without his son. It was only when he was faced with death threats that he ended up coming with José. The reason I thought that was important is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done or what your justification is for coming to this country. The idea that the United States government would traumatize, abuse, and torture anyone, especially children, for any reason, is inexcusable.

I just love them as people. They were candid so what happened to them never happens again to anybody.

It’s interesting that you describe him as a “not-perfect” immigrant. It brought to mind a formerly undocumented author who, in her book, chose not to disclose why her subjects came to the U.S. The way she explained it to me, the public has been trained to look at why someone migrates and then judge whether they are deserving or not. In Juan’s case, like, “Oh, he came twice before illegally, and then he sought out asylum.” Therefore he —

He’s a liar or whatever.

Exactly. Did you think about approaching their story like that, stripping it out of the reasons why Juan and José sought out asylum?

I thought about it. I asked both Juan and his attorneys. At that dinner that I write about, he kind of laughed about his past and was really honest. I said, “Is it okay if I include that?” I asked both of them, and they both said yes. Truthfully, if they had said they didn’t want me to disclose it, maybe I wouldn’t, you know? I’ve covered a lot of families who don’t want to share their backstory. It’s probably just an individual decision. Juan and José knew their story wasn’t super tidy, but they wanted to share it anyway.

The family separation crisis is a shameful chapter of American history. That summer saw a month of back-to-back protests. Then Trump signed an executive order ending the policy his own administration created, and suddenly people moved on. Why do you think that happened?

Part of it is our fault. We were so focused on the Russia investigation, or Robert Mueller investigating the president, that this obvious human rights violation fell out of the headlines. It’s not easy. In this Donald Trump news cycle era, we just move on to the next thing.

What we lost in moving on was that separations never stopped. They might’ve stopped on a wide-scale, systematic basis, but the ACLU says over a thousand families have been separated since. As we’re talking, there’s another hundred right now at risk of separation in ICE detention in a slightly different form of family separation.

You don’t shy away from offering your opinions throughout the book. It’s a clear break from this notion of objectivity — personally I really dislike that term.

Me too.

What made you cross that line, which a lot of our colleagues don’t?

It’s impossible, frankly, for any human being to do anything “objectively.” We all have our own experiences and our own vantage points from which we understand the world. To deny that is not only untruthful but also somewhat unhealthy as just a human. To try to suppress the way that you interpret something in the service of neutrality, it doesn’t really compute to me.

It really didn’t compute to me at the moment I was down there on the border in June 2018. At first, I was trying to not say the word “cages” because I knew that it was a hot topic. Then I just said what I thought, which was something like, “They’re cages. I don’t know any other way to describe it.” It’s nuts that the Washington Post gave Sen. Jeff Merkley three Pinocchios for saying the same. I saw with my own eyeballs that there are children in cages sitting on concrete floors, under Mylar blankets, supervised by security contractors. To describe it any other way, like a chain-link enclosure or something that looked like a dog kennel, didn’t feel truthful.

I just published an investigation into Puerto Rico’s domestic violence crisis, and it left a mark on me. As I read the book, I kept thinking you’re a dad and you were right there in person seeing it happen. You also had conversations with people directly impacted by separation and pored through many documents. Was there an emotional toll for you?

I never went to therapy after this, but I’m sure I have some form of PTSD. I don’t know. I don’t want to overstate it. I didn’t write this in the book, but I went back to New York while we were finishing the Dateline documentary. I was in a spin class, and all of a sudden I started crying in the spin class. There were a lot of emotions bottled up as I was seeing this level of trauma, but then also every day trying to find answers to what was going on. I still have that inside of me in some way. It will never leave me, that’s for sure.

But I always think about how — I’m sure you feel the same way with your investigation — it pales in comparison to the trauma that the children and the parents went through. An official I write about in the book said to me, “Childhood trauma means a century of suffering.” It’s true. These kids will live with this for the rest of their lives.

You share a document stating that a five-year-old migrant child had suicidal ideation after being separated from their family. That broke me.

I hate to think about that. If we were reading those things happening in another country, you better believe that politicians and people would be up in arms saying, “We’ve got to go help.” Yet, this is all happening here. Many of those documents were from times where nobody had even seen or heard of separations happening, myself included. To go back and know what was happening at that time, when I was putzing around doing other border stories, it just made me have all this regret and frustration that I didn’t see it sooner. I have a lot of admiration for my colleagues who did.

After the controversy surrounding American Dirt earlier this year, there were a lot of conversations around whiteness in publishing and which authors get which deals. You’re a prominent white reporter at an elite institution. There are other immigration reporters, many non-white, who would likely not obtain a book deal in the first place despite doing comparable reporting to yours. I’m just curious if throughout this process you reflected on how the current system benefitted you and what needs to change for the industry to become more equitable.

The reality is that I benefit from white privilege. Do I think I’d have the same opportunities to write the same book if I was a Latinx author? Or become an MSNBC correspondent or grow up in the way and the place I did in Los Angeles? I don’t. The fact that we’re reckoning with that now is really important, and I’m glad we are. It’s completely fair game pointing out that I’m in this position because of that privilege. What I’ve chosen to do is to use this platform that I’m blessed to have, privileged to have, and do the best that I can to do my part. But me doing my part is not enough. That’s where the #OwnVoices movement comes in. I wrote the book because I was there, and I genuinely felt like there were questions that I personally wanted answered. The truth is there are other people who have had lived experiences who probably wouldn’t have the same questions I had and say, “Hey, you’re an idiot. How did you not know this?” Hopefully, in being as honest and transparent as I can about that, it’ll be constructive not only about the policy and what happened but about who gets to tell what stories, because that’s equally important.

You note in your book that a lot of the people who were at the center of developing and implementing the family separation policy are now handling the coronavirus pandemic. How should we feel about that?

In February, I was watching the same people I knew from family separations now at the coronavirus briefings: Katie Miller, now Vice President Pence’s press secretary; Chad Wolf, from DHS; Alex Azar, who is the head of HHS; Robert Kadlec, the emergency response guy who had to put the kids back together.

Let’s just say I didn’t have great faith in what the response would be because I knew how they handled family separation. HHS warned the White House. “Here’s what’s going to happen if we don’t do X, Y, and Z around coronavirus.” Sure enough, now here we are leading the world in the amount of deaths. It sounds a lot like, “Hey, if you don’t do this with regard to family separation, you’re going to have thousands of traumatized kids.” It’s almost the same story, right?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Journalist covering politics, elections, immigration, feminism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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