Add Jacob Soboroff’s “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy” to the library of essential reading about the administration of the 45th president of the United States. Published in early July, the book tracks the discovery and development of the Trump administration’s infamous family separation policy. Soboroff, whose investigative reporting on this issue earned him a Walter Cronkite Award last year, will discuss “Separated” with ACLU senior counsel Ahilan Arulanantham for a virtual Vroman’s Live event on Tuesday, September 15.
In August, Soboroff and fellow NBC News correspondent Julia Ainsley broke a story rooted in the one shared in his book: namely, that 11 senior advisers and cabinet members convened in the White House Situation Room in May 2018 and voted by a show of hands to separate migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. That the policy was implemented is not news; as “Separated” documents, by early 2017 it was already in motion on the ground despite steadfast administration denials that any such policy existed. But that newly reported episode further illuminates the character of leading officials depicted in “Separated” and the complex machinations that resulted in at least 5,400 migrant children being systemically separated from their parents—a process bluntly labeled “torture” by Physicians for Human Rights.
The story “Separated” tells is massive in scope; in its later pages, a government official confides that the administration’s family separation policy caused “the greatest human rights catastrophe in my lifetime” within the United States. Soboroff scales it to human size by grounding his clear-eyed, sometimes self-deprecating reporting in two parallel tracks: his personal journey of discovery of what was happening, and the wrenching experience of a father and son, Juan and 14-year-old José, who had sought asylum here from death threats in Petén, Guatemala. That brings narrative clarity and some dramatic tension to coverage of policy deliberations and agency politics.
Soboroff, with a growing sense of responsibility to the traumatized children he has seen in detention centers, crisscrosses the country (as well as Mexico and Greenland) as he digs into some of the reasons migrants are fleeing Central America. That includes climate change, which is drying up farms and destabilizing the region with “extreme poverty and malnutrition,” thus creating opportunity “for drug cartels moving narcotics from South and Central America through Mexico and into the United States, with many farmers in the region finding the drug trade more lucrative than their work in unreliable fields.”
President Donald Trump loudly opposed foreign aid even when it sustained farmers and kept migrants at home, so in 2019 the administration defunded programs that had been helping to mitigate the effects of climate change—thereby fueling the very fire they claimed to want to stamp out. Such short-sighted compartmentalization is emblematic of the administration’s overall approach to policy making here, a source of continual frustration to officials charged with carrying out conflicting orders.
Those who made an intolerable situation worse when they had the power to make it better take their lumps. More than once Soboroff catches then Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a lie, and his observations of DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman—future wife of Stephen Miller, architect of Trump’s immigration policies—are eye-opening. (Confronting her about a 2019 DHS inspector general report, he asks if she had known that the CBP had planned to separate more than 26,000 children from families, “five times more children than it had ultimately been able to before the president backed down.” Waldman’s response: “We had to prepare for all contingencies.”)
Excerpted emails and documents show how different IT systems used by Border Patrol, CBP and ICE could not communicate with one another—a direct cause of children being misplaced in the system as their parents were deported. Soboroff identifies career officials who labored valiantly to sound alarms and subvert disaster, only to be repeatedly stymied by political appointees. Commander Jonathan White at the DHS, who led a “herculean” effort to reunite families (and has a priceless showdown with Waldman), warned colleagues that, in Soboroff’s words, “whoever had decided to start separating these children, and wherever it was happening along the border, a lack of planning for its repercussions was breaking the system used by the federal government to safely care for children.” Jim De La Cruz, an Office of Refugee Resettlement senior field specialist, kept an informal list of names that later became vital to connecting children with parents — in defiance of a call by administration officials seeking political cover to “get rid of the list.”
How many nonpartisan career officials—public servants more deeply versed than anyone else in how to make government gears function without jamming—remain at the DHS, ICE and ORR is an open question. What official safeguards remain in place to prevent denial of civil rights and constitutional protections? Currently, migrants requesting asylum at the border are detained in Mexico, in far more dangerous situations than those chronicled in “Separated.”
As America girds itself for another presidential election, a revelation in the epilogue—that as recently as March 2019 Trump voiced his desire to resume family separations, and that it was not a cabinet member but his wife who opposed him—serves as a red-flag reminder of why this story of systemic family separations is still relevant.