Cover Story: Investigating the U.S. Government’s Family-Separation Policy

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, joined workers author Caitlin Dickerson to debate her cover story, a years-long investigation into the key historical past of the Trump administration’s family-separation coverage. Dickerson’s story argues that separating kids was not an unintended facet impact, as beforehand claimed, however its core intent. How did officers work to maintain households aside longer? Did they obscure the reality to each Congress and the general public? What’s going to occur if the Trump administration is restored to energy within the 2024 election? This dialogue is an edited and condensed model of a dialog Dickerson and Goldberg had on Friday for The Atlantic’s “Large Story” broadcast.

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Jeffrey Goldberg: When did you notice that the Trump administration was doing one thing new?

Caitlin Dickerson: There have been two issues right here that actually stood out from the norm in my expertise as a reporter. The primary, with household separations, is simply the mere proven fact that they befell in relative secrecy. In 2017, lots of of separations befell beginning out in El Paso, Texas, in a program that later expanded. However when reporters would ask about it, the administration would inform us, “No, this isn’t occurring. You realize, we’re not separating households.” There’s some sophisticated causes for that which we are able to get into, however that’s actually not regular. As a reporter, you’re used to listening to “no remark” in response to a narrative that the federal government doesn’t need you to report. Otherwise you’re used to listening to a public-affairs officer supply some context that at the very least helps to melt the blow of a narrative that they know the general public just isn’t going to react kindly to. However on this case, we really acquired denials.

After which, in fact, having regarded again at immigration coverage all the best way again to the nineteenth century in the US, separating kids from their mother and father as an immigration coverage hasn’t occurred earlier than. It was the harshest software any of us have seen of this primary idea of prevention by deterrence, which is how we strategy immigration enforcement usually. And it was so harsh and painful for folks and for kids, and continues to be, that I needed to keep it up.

Goldberg: So to be clear, no presidential administration going again all the best way had ever finished something this dramatic?

Dickerson: No. As you understand, there are examples of children being taken from their mother and father in American historical past, although not in a border context. We’ve had some fairly merciless and fairly harsh border-enforcement insurance policies. However the forcible separation of youngsters from their mother and father is simply not one thing that the Border Patrol has ever engaged in in American historical past.

Goldberg: One of many nice achievements of your story is that you simply take us all the best way into the bureaucratic choice making that allowed this to occur. However someone had to think about this primary. The idea, on the half of people that take into consideration this, is that it will need to have been Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s very hard-line adviser. He labored for Jeff Periods and introduced quite a lot of his concepts to Donald Trump. Nevertheless it’s extra sophisticated than that.

Dickerson: It took much more than Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and Jeff Periods to forcefully separate 1000’s of children from their mother and father. The concept really got here from throughout the border-enforcement equipment: a person named Tom Homan, who began out as a Border Patrol agent in his early 20s, spent a profession in enforcement, and finally turned the top of ICE beneath President Trump.

He first got here up with the concept to separate households as an escalation of the idea of prevention by deterrence: this concept of introducing penalties to discourage unlawful border crossing, even when it’s for the needs of in search of asylum. He first proposes separating kids from their mother and father in 2014, throughout the Obama administration, which is after we noticed the primary main surge of youngsters and households crossing the border. Border Patrol was completely overwhelmed on the time. Congress didn’t intervene. And so you may have, primarily, a police drive that’s left to determine this out—this coverage, which is absolutely humanitarian coverage; it’s financial coverage. Once you depart this to the Border Patrol, the answer that they provide you with again and again is punishment. So Homan proposes it, and Jeh Johnson, who was Homeland Safety secretary on the time, rejects the concept. Then the concept resurfaces very quickly after Donald Trump takes workplace.

Goldberg: So there was a bureaucratic impetus from beneath. Take us by way of that—Donald Trump wins in 2016, comes into workplace, and this dormant concept is delivered to whom?

Dickerson: Trump comes into workplace and is visiting Border Patrol headquarters and Customs and Border Safety headquarters and saying, “Hey, we’ve acquired to close this border down, and, actually, we’ll cease at nothing to do it. Deliver me your finest concepts.” Tom Homan, who was the top of ICE, and a person named Kevin McAleenan, who was the top of Customs and Border Safety, in a short time reraise this idea that that they had already talked about and already favored. They inform Miller about it, who will get actually excited and form of obsessive about it. And Miller continues to push for the following yr and a half till it’s formally applied. Donald Trump additionally begins to favor it.

I used to be shocked about this, finally, however the story finally ends up being form of a case for the forms. I discovered, in reporting this, the best way the insurance policies are made. Usually, you may have principals, who’re the heads of businesses and have nice decision-making energy however have big portfolios. Coverage concepts ought to solely ever attain the desk of somebody like Kirstjen Nielsen—who was the Homeland Safety secretary, who finally indicators off on household separation—in the event that they’ve been totally vetted. Topic-matter consultants have decided these insurance policies are logistically possible, they’re authorized, they’re moral. They make sense politically for the administration in workplace. All these layers exist to forestall unhealthy insurance policies from ever even reaching someone who has the authority to signal. And these methods had been actually both sidelined, disempowered, or simply fully reduce out of the dialog. Everyone who was elevating pink flags was actually reduce out.

Goldberg: I need you to speak about baby separation in its particulars. The concept is preventative. Which is to say, if phrase will get out into Guatemala, Honduras, wherever, that if you happen to attempt to cross the border together with your child, the U.S. authorities will take your child from you—really kidnap your baby in some form of bureaucratically authorized method—then all of the people who find themselves making an attempt to return to America, asylum seekers, staff, and so forth., won’t come. Is that the idea of the case?

Dickerson: That’s the idea of the case. And there’s quite a lot of cause to imagine it’s not a great idea.

Goldberg: Why is it not a great idea? It sounds fairly scary if you happen to’re sitting in Guatemala and someone says you may lose your child.

Dickerson: It does. That’s what’s tough about it: that it’s considerably intuitive, this concept of prevention by deterrence. Lecturers have been finding out it for a very long time and know what methods it really works, and what methods it doesn’t work. Within the early 2000s, we began prosecuting particular person adults who crossed the border illegally.

To start with, there’s this program known as Operation Streamline. It fully floods courts alongside the border, and instantly, prosecutors—assistant U.S. attorneys—are sad with it as a result of they’re saying it’s taking away assets from these extra vital circumstances that we have to take care of. And never solely that, however it doesn’t appear to be influencing long-term developments.

In case you have a look at shifts in migration which have taken place during the last 20 years, these may be defined fully by financial shifts and demographic shifts in the US and the nations the place persons are coming from. All of these modifications are attributable to the provision of assets right here and the provision of jobs right here, after which the inverse: what alternatives folks have out there to them of their house nations, in addition to whether or not folks really really feel protected.

Regardless that prevention by deterrence, first within the type of Streamline, wasn’t making a dent in border crossings in any important method, this concept turns into an increasing number of common till finally we get to the purpose of separating kids from their mother and father. Anecdotally, Lee Gelernt—the ACLU lawyer who’s heading up the federal case towards household separations, the principle case that prompted household reunification—talks about asking each mum or dad that he interviewed for that case, “In case you had identified about household separation, would you may have left your nation to start with? Would you may have determined to remain house?” And so they’d simply form of shrug their shoulders and say, “Nicely, what was I going to do? You realize, we left as a result of our lives had been in peril. I couldn’t keep.” That’s one thing that folks like Tom Homan, who got here up with the concept to separate households, didn’t actually take into consideration.

Goldberg: The extent of desperation at house is the important thing determinant of whether or not someone goes to begin the trek.

Dickerson: It’s a really, very excessive bar to surpass whenever you’re speaking to a mum or dad who not solely can’t feed themselves or their baby, however on a day-to-day foundation fears that their baby could also be killed.

Goldberg: Keep on that for one second so folks perceive this inhabitants. You’re speaking about people who find themselves residing in very harmful Central American nations, primarily.

Dickerson: You’re speaking about quite a lot of occasions a mixture of deep poverty, day by day worry of loss of life, and day by day encounters with violence. I can let you know about my experiences reporting in elements of Mexico, the place folks come to the US from, and in Central America. When The New York Occasions despatched me to Guatemala to jot down a couple of household that was making an attempt to get into the US, I had safety with me the whole time. Many individuals, simply inside this household, had been murdered. It’s a domino impact the place a gang identifies one individual in a household and desires that individual to affix the gang. If that first particular person doesn’t do proper by the gang, family proceed to be murdered.

Once I would go home to deal with to go to with folks related to this household, we had been hiding. They couldn’t let anyone know the place they lived. They couldn’t let anyone know that I used to be there, as a result of it might have put them in larger hazard. The poverty, too, is absolutely one thing that I don’t know quite a lot of Individuals have actually sat down and thought of. Homes that don’t have any roofs, no flooring. Households of 4 which might be splitting a tortilla amongst them. Entry to high school is sort of nonexistent. Youngsters don’t have sneakers. It’s stuff that I feel most Individuals have a tough time envisioning. Take into consideration how scared you would need to be to determine to go to the US, understanding that you simply’re going to need to journey by way of a sizzling and harmful desert and encounter murderous gangs. No one indicators up to try this until they really feel like they’ve completely no alternative.

Goldberg: Let’s come again to the narrative of the adoption of this coverage. One of many causes, after we had been speaking about doing this story over the previous yr and a half, was to attempt to perceive the mentality of presidency officers and bureaucrats. By some means the concept of taking kids from their mother and father turns into socialized inside these authorities buildings. Discuss that. Did anyone alongside the best way say, “Hey, I’m all for deterrence. I’ve these views on immigration. I’m a hard-liner. However this doesn’t appear to comport with my notions”—and I’m utilizing this time period advisedly—“my notions of household values”?

Dickerson: Lots of people mentioned that. And finally, by the point the choice to pursue separating households is made, that they had been neglected of the room. When household separations are first proposed, they’re described in fairly blatant phrases. I interviewed Jeh Johnson—once more, who was the Homeland Safety secretary beneath President Obama, and did imagine in deterrence—however he mentioned, “That’s too far for me. I’m not comfy with it.” John Kelly, who was President Trump’s first Homeland Safety secretary and thought of the concept after it was proposed by Tom Homan, Kevin McAleenan, and others, mentioned the identical factor. He wasn’t actually a giant believer in deterrence, however he’d taken the job for the Trump administration. However this felt too far for him.

Goldberg: John Kelly then goes to the White Home as chief of workers and is there when all of that is nonetheless occurring. What function did he play there?

Dickerson: Kelly instructed me that his strategy to opposing household separations was to focus purely on the logistics. When the concept is formally proposed to him, he requests a briefing to search out out whether or not it’s attainable. And he learns, rightly, that the federal authorities didn’t have the assets to impose such a program with out complete chaos, which we finally noticed—with out dropping monitor of fogeys and youngsters, with out actually inhumane conditions the place youngsters are being bodily taken out of their mother and father’ arms. You want coaching, theoretically, to do that in a method that isn’t chaotic if you happen to’re going to do it in any respect.

He instructed me that he knew that interesting to the president and to Stephen Miller on some form of ethical foundation wasn’t going to be efficient. They weren’t going to pay attention. As an alternative, he mentioned, you focus purely on the logistics. “It’s not attainable. We simply can’t do it.” He would say, “Mr. President, if you wish to pursue this, you should go ask Congress for the cash,” understanding that Donald Trump wouldn’t be prepared to try this. The issue is that whenever you ask these extra hawkish members of the administration what their understanding of John Kelly’s view is, they might say to me, “Nicely, I didn’t know he had any difficulty with it. All he mentioned was that we wanted extra money; we wanted extra coaching.” You possibly can see that there’s logic behind Kelly’s strategy, however there’s additionally, because of it, repeated conferences the place this concept is being mentioned. He might have jumped up and down and screamed and mentioned, “I oppose this; I don’t need to do it.” However he didn’t. He simply mentioned, “Sir, we don’t have the cash.”

Goldberg: I imply, to be honest to Kelly, he did have an affordable understanding that Trump would by no means reply to the humanitarian argument.

Dickerson: There are such a lot of totally different approaches that folks say they took to attempt to stop this, and it finally didn’t work. The upper the numbers rose, the extra obsessed Donald Trump turned with discovering some method to decrease them.

Goldberg: I do need to ask about two folks whose names are very intimately related to this. Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the DHS secretary and signed off on this, and Stephen Miller. I need you to speak about her function, which is extra sophisticated, morally, than we initially thought. And Miller, who clearly remains to be the ideological driver of an entire set of insurance policies.

Dickerson: Kirstjen Nielsen got here into the Trump administration a reasonable. She was a cybersecurity professional who helped to ascertain DHS the primary time beneath George W. Bush. No expertise in immigration, and no actual sturdy emotions about immigration. She’s certainly one of lots of people whom I interviewed who joined DHS beneath Trump and simply mentioned, “I didn’t know all that a lot about immigration. It wasn’t that vital to me.” From the very starting, they appeared a bit misguided by way of what their expectations for his or her job may seem like, given how a lot this White Home actually cared in regards to the difficulty.

Household separations are proposed to her proper after she’s confirmed, in December of 2017, and she or he says, “Completely not. John Kelly has mentioned no to this. I’m not doing it. I oppose it. I don’t imagine in it.” Over time, this different model of attaining the identical finish is proposed to her through prosecution, and conveyed to her in these phrases which might be fairly bland. You realize, “We’re going to pursue a prosecution initiative. There are individuals who have been committing misdemeanor crimes; we’ve been letting them go just because they’re mother and father.” There was quite a lot of fearmongering round this concept that quite a lot of the mother and father might need been smugglers, that households could not have really been associated in any respect, that these kids may all have been victims of trafficking. There’s no proof to help {that a} important variety of these false households existed. She’s additionally instructed, “It’s been finished earlier than,” and that methods and processes exist to forestall chaos from ensuing. And so, based mostly on that data, she finally ends up approving the coverage.

One other actually vital factor to learn about her is she got here into her function at a drawback as a result of she was seen as a reasonable. She was certainly one of lots of people who had been seen very skeptically within the White Home.

Goldberg: Are these people who find themselves making an attempt to show they’re powerful in order that Donald Trump likes them?

Dickerson: Or retains them of their job.I heard in my reporting that, in truth, “You’re not powerful sufficient” is a quote that Trump repeated to Nielsen on a regular basis. At one level an adviser steered, “Possibly you need to write a memoir and name it Powerful Sufficient as a result of he’s all the time telling you you’re not powerful sufficient.” Nielsen was all the time making an attempt to form of meet these expectations and present that she wasn’t a closeted liberal. She ultimately indicators off on this coverage that she intellectually, at the very least prior, appeared to completely oppose, however had satisfied herself of quite a lot of illogical realities and determined, Okay, I comply with zero tolerance. She’s a very good individual, however she labored so exhausting to please her bosses.

The opposite individual you had been asking about was Stephen Miller. What I perceive from folks near him and accustomed to his considering is that he continues to imagine that President Trump’s harshest immigration insurance policies had been Trump’s hottest and profitable accomplishments. I feel he nonetheless believes in separating households and doing something to seal the border, stopping at nothing. He’s even made clear to shut confidants that the groundwork has been laid so {that a} future Trump administration, or a future Republican administration that appears like Trump’s, can pursue these insurance policies much more shortly and much more dramatically.

He exerted stress actually form of shamelessly. He would name not solely Kirstjen Nielsen, who was Homeland Safety secretary, however all of her advisers and even decrease folks in DHS: individuals who had no authority to log out on something. He was calling folks incessantly to press for his insurance policies, making an attempt to get buy-in. I heard about one thing he would do on a convention name the place he would introduce an concept and say, “Hey, I imagine X, Y, and Z must occur. And this head of this division of DHS agrees with me.” Then that head of the division may say, “Oh, properly, I’ve some questions on that. You realize, I’m not precisely positive.” And Stephen would say, “Nicely, are you saying that this isn’t a precedence?” And they might say, “Oh, no, I do agree with you that it’s a precedence.” And Stephen would say, “Nice; I’ve your help.” After which he would go into White Home conferences after which repeat it and say that he had buy-in from DHS. He was bullying folks into unintentionally or tacitly or passively agreeing together with his concepts. He was not embarrassed to maintain folks on the telephone after midnight, ranting, not even letting the opposite individual converse. It was a singular focus for him.

Goldberg: John Kelly would give him the chilly shoulder. However not all people had John Kelly’s energy, proper?

Dickerson: Precisely. And John Kelly is a profession army official and common. He believed actually strongly within the chain of command. He couldn’t imagine that Miller would name folks beneath Kelly and make calls for and attempt to stress Kelly into making choices. And so Kelly would name the White Home and truly attempt to get Miller in bother. He’s one of many few folks to do it. However different folks a lot greater within the official chain of command, equivalent to cupboard secretaries, actually let themselves be bullied by Miller. Once I would ask why, they principally simply mentioned Miller had this mystique. He was so near the president and was protected due to this narrative that immigration is the rationale why Donald Trump was elected president and was the important thing to him having the ability to maintain on to energy. Due to that, Miller was insulated from any form of accountability, at the same time as he defied the chain of command time and again.

Goldberg: Do you suppose that these identical folks, in the event that they got here again to authorities, would do it higher? Do you suppose that they’ve discovered classes about easy methods to attempt to pull this off in a extra environment friendly, efficient method that wouldn’t draw a lot consideration?

Dickerson: I do suppose that quite a lot of them nonetheless imagine on this concept, and so they’ve taken classes away from the expertise so as to have the ability to “do it higher.” They didn’t have a system for retaining monitor of fogeys and youngsters, so kids had been despatched over to the Division of Well being and Human Providers, which homes any child who’s in federal custody on their very own. That company doesn’t have laptop methods that discuss to DHS. One thing like that may very well be up to date. I do suppose that these officers would go into such a coverage sooner or later slightly bit extra eyes open about what would really occur as soon as the separation happens. However they nonetheless imagine on this concept. And quite a lot of them, Tom Homan and plenty of others, would form of whisper out of the facet of their mouth to me in interviews like, “No one actually likes to say this, however it actually labored. And 0 tolerance was efficient.” Once more, the info that they’re citing is inaccurate. There isn’t proof that household separations had been efficient. In actual fact, after zero tolerance ended was the yr when 1,000,000 folks crossed the border beneath President Trump. It was a record-breaking yr for border crossings.

Goldberg: Are there any heroes within the story, out of your perspective?

Dickerson: There are lots of people throughout the federal forms who tried to forestall household separations from going down. Throughout the Well being and Human Providers company, which cares for kids, there was a person named Jonathan White who oversaw, in the beginning of the Trump administration, this system that homes youngsters in federal custody. He discovered about household separation in an early and uncommon assembly the place you really had HHS invited to satisfy with the law-enforcement facet. Usually these two businesses—which need to work collectively on immigration—actually don’t play properly collectively, as a result of HHS is made up of lots of people like White, who’re social staff and have backgrounds in baby welfare, after which are sitting within the room with cops. It’s a fraught relationship that’s detrimental for all sides.

White finds out in an early assembly about this proposal to separate households. And he begins writing up experiences mentioning that the company didn’t have sufficient area to deal with kids who’re separated, who are typically youthful than those that crossed the border on their very own. They didn’t have the assets to take care of the emotional fallout that was simply anticipated by any professional accustomed to baby welfare and the state a toddler goes to be in once they’ve simply been separated from their mum or dad. He additionally identified that kids who cross the border with their mother and father don’t essentially have wherever to go. A toddler who chooses to cross the border on their very own is often coming right here as a result of they’ve an aunt or a relative, someone who can take them in in the US. A toddler who involves the US with their mum or dad is anticipating to stay with their mum or dad. Whether or not they get asylum standing or are finally deported, the expectation is that they’re going to remain collectively. And so White began to level out, together with a number of of his colleagues, that not solely did they imagine this was a foul concept, the assets simply didn’t exist.

You could have variations of that very same struggle, that very same argument, being made inside DHS, the DOJ, and the U.S. Marshal system. I discovered examples in all of those locations of individuals throughout the federal forms who tried to boost considerations with the White Home, with folks of their company management, about why this was such a foul concept. There are lots of people who fought again, and finally they didn’t win the argument.

Goldberg: What’s your evaluation of the success of President Biden’s government order organising the duty drive for household reunification? What number of kids will we nonetheless suppose are on the market floating within the bureaucratic abyss who haven’t been unified with their mother and father?

Dickerson: Virtually all the kids who had been separated have been launched from federal custody. In the event that they haven’t been reunified with their mother and father, they’re within the care of a sponsor: an prolonged relative or a household buddy who went by way of an software course of and was authorised to take that baby in. That’s very totally different from reuniting them with the mum or dad with whom they crossed the border, with whom they had been residing and planning to proceed residing greater than 4 years in the past. That quantity is between 700 and 1,000—those that haven’t been formally reunited with their mother and father, in line with authorities data. A few of them could have, and are thought to have discovered, their mother and father on their very own and simply not reported it to the U.S. authorities, form of understandably—not eager to take care of the U.S. authorities anymore and fearing future penalties.

The Biden administration had a very tall order in entrance of it when this process drive to reunify separated households was established. A lot time had handed, and report retaining was so poor that that they had little or no to work with. Up to now they’ve been in a position to monitor down greater than 400 households which have been reunified, and there are a number of hundred extra who’re within the means of making use of. What I hear from the ACLU and advocacy teams is that the Biden administration is working actually exhausting and doing its finest to reunify these households, and so they’ve had a major quantity of success within the face of this problem.

However now they’re coping with actually sophisticated circumstances. I’ve heard about mother and father, for instance, who had been deported with out their youngsters. That occurred in over 1,000 circumstances. They’ve been again at house since then, and so they’ve needed to maybe take custody of an prolonged relative’s baby. I heard about one mum or dad whose sister had been killed. And so the sister’s kids had been now being taken care of by the separated mum or dad. So then the separated mum or dad is making use of to return again and rejoin their very own baby. And are these different kids eligible to return to the US? It’s not completely clear. I imply, that is what occurs. It’s very messy logistically whenever you separate a household for 4 years after which attempt to convey them again collectively. And so the numbers are shrinking, however the problem is form of rising by way of getting these remaining households reunified.

Goldberg: One thing that, within the colloquial sense, is totally unbelievable to me is that when household separation really began, nobody—for weeks—thought to even write down, maintain a log, an Excel spreadsheet, of the place the youngsters had been going, who their mother and father had been. You might outline that as negligence, however negligence bleeds over into immorality in a short time. That, to me, of all of the unbelievable reporting that you simply did, struck me as nearly an excessive amount of. What for you is the facet of this complete multiyear saga that you simply nonetheless can’t get your thoughts round? What’s the factor that also stays in your thoughts as, “I can’t imagine that really occurred?”

Dickerson: The one which I nonetheless can’t actually imagine is the variety of folks I interviewed who held very important roles in DHS or within the White Home overseeing this difficulty, to whom I needed to clarify primary tenets of the immigration-enforcement system. They might say to me, “We by no means anticipated to lose monitor of fogeys and kids. Couldn’t have imagined issues would go as poorly as they did.” That simply doesn’t make any sense. You possibly can name up any prosecutor within the nation and ask them, “Hey, tomorrow I need to begin prosecuting lots of of fogeys at a time who’re touring with younger kids who’re exterior of their communities, with no person close by to take these kids in. And by the best way, they don’t converse the language that the majority authorities officers speaking to them are going to be utilizing. Is that going to work?” They might let you know it clearly received’t. I used to be shocked that, to this present day, many individuals concerned on this choice making nonetheless don’t perceive how immigration enforcement works.

Watch: Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg in dialog with workers author Caitlin Dickerson

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