As Election Day in the U.S. rapidly approaches, it’s an appropriate time to look back on the “zero tolerance” immigration policy that resulted in families being separated from their children at the U.S./Mexican border in 2017 and 2018. Jacob Soboroff, a correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, was one of the first journalists to uncover this practice after making numerous visits to detention facilities in Arizona, Texas, and California. In his new book, Separated, Soboroff provides a detailed account of when the policy began, the people involved, and how the courts eventually forced the government to reunite families. He provides personal stories of migrants he met who had been separated, and the devastating effect it had on their lives.
Today no one knows the exact number of children who were taken from their parents at the border. But government records indicate there were at least 5,400 children, with over 100 under the age of 5. Some “were quickly put back together with their families and some children were, as predicted, permanently orphaned,” says Soboroff.
An alphabet soup of government agencies were involved in implementing the family separation policy, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), Customs and Border Protection (CPB), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions who first criminalized immigration violations that had formerly been treated as a civil offense. In 2017, he also put an end to “catch and release” where migrants could wait for their court hearing date outside of jail. Family separations started secretly in 2017, but became an official policy when DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen signed the order in May 2018. It was viewed as a deterrent to future migrants if they knew they would be arrested and separated from their children at the border.
If it weren’t for additional reporters such as Lomi Kriel of the Houston Chronicle, Caitlin Dickerson of the New York Times, and Julia Ainsley of NBC reporting on family separations, it might have taken much longer for human rights advocates and the general public to learn about what was going on at the border.
Destroying Family Records
Perhaps one of the most shocking parts of the book was when Scott Lloyd, the head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement who was in charge custodially of the separated children, suggested destroying a list of 700 separated families after it was leaked to the New York Times. This would be the only way to match parents with their children once their cases had been decided. Fortunately, employees such as Jallyn Sualog and Jim De La Cruz refused to delete these files which proved to be crucial when the courts ordered the government to reunite families.
Executive Order Ends Family Separation
According to Soboroff, it was Ivanka Trump who convinced her father he should issue an executive order putting an end to family separations on the Mexican border. This happened on June 20, 2018 after much publicity about the policy in the press. As the number of immigrants almost doubled afterwards, President Trump considered reinstating the policy. On a plane headed for Alabama to survey tornado damage in March 2019, he suggested this to Kirstjen Nielsen, and Melania Trump said, “We can’t do that,” curtailing any debate.
The Challenge in Reuniting Families
If it weren’t for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and federal judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego, the vast majority of children may never have been reunited with their parents. Other relatives in the U.S. illegally were reluctant to come and claim them since they had to be fingerprinted first. Judge Sabraw issued the order to stop family separations at the border and to reunite the children with their parents. However it quickly became apparent, according to a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report, that “DHS did not have the information technology system functionality needed to track separated migrant families during the execution of the Zero Tolerance Policy.” Poor records had been kept and many parents were held thousands of miles from their children in detention centers. DHS consistently missed deadlines set by the court to reunite families.
Before immigration advocates were able to get involved, parents were asked to sign forms written in English saying they were willing to be deported without their children.
Lifelong Scars to Children
Soboroff made many visits to detention facilities where children were held, and tells Texas Public Radio “It made me particularly incensed and also, searching for the way to describe it when I saw, not just children, but children who had been systematically taken away from their parents for no other reason than they wanted to find refuge in this country, and thrown into those cages by themselves… And I was trying to process it as I saw it. To see these children, to talk to border patrol agents who weren’t allowed to touch them, seeing licensed social workers who were over-matched and overwhelmed and understaffed… It’s something that I’ll never forget because of the weight that everyone felt.”
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) issued a scathing report about the administration’s family separation policy declaring that “the government’s forcible separation of asylum-seeking families constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and, in all cases PHR evaluated, meets criteria for torture.” The American Academy of Pediatrics stated “the practice will leave thousands of kids traumatized for life.”
Soboroff named the book Separated not only to refer to parents separated from their children at the border; “It also described most Americans’ mental separation from how we got to this point — the inability to understand and comprehend,” he says in an interview with The Intercept. “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.
“And which is why, I think 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? And what is it gonna take for this to not happen again?”
Before making that important choice for president on November 3, 2020, perhaps Americans should answer the question posed on the jacket worn by First Lady Melania Trump when she visited the U.S./Mexican border to assess the family separation crisis:
I really don’t care, Do U?