Separated: Inside an American Tragedy

In November, about the same time that I was writing my first two immigration pieces for the blog, my office received a call from a Catholic church in North County.  One of the couples who was scheduled to attend our Celebrating Your Love retreat for engaged couples would be unable to attend their upcoming date.  No, they would not be able to reschedule – the woman (and mother of their two young children) had been deported.

Let me clear about this point.  Immigration separates families.  Many immigrants themselves choose this path in the hope being later reunited.  For many, the separation is determined by deportation and then the painful question arise.  Does the rest of the family return to their country of origin with their loved ones?  What if they have stable jobs here in the U.S.?  What if returning puts them back in the dangerous situation (i.e. cartel violence) that they originally fled?  What if the children are American citizens?

From a policy level, no presidential administration in the last fifty years has handled this reality well.  I am equally critical of Republican and Democratic administrations.  For the good President Obama did in enacting DACA, he also increased deportations and could reasonably deserve the Deporter-in-Chief moniker sometimes ascribed to him.  All that being said, no prior administration would have had the blatant gall and inhumanity of the Trump Administration to enact an intentional policy to separate children (some as young as toddlers and infants) from their parents at the border.  Coupled with drastic incompetency, there is a reason that parents of 628 migrant children have still not been found as of last month.  This is the backdrop for immigration journalist, Jacob Soboroff’s searing work, Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.

MSNBC journalist, Jacob Soboroff, had spent the years following the cast of Trump-appointees, with familiar names like Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, Kirstjen Nielsen, Chad Wolfe (who just resigned last week – how convenient), who concocted and implemented this so-called policy.  Catholics should note that one of the policy’s fervent advocates, Scott Lloyd, is a lawyer who had spent most of his career working for the Knights of Columbus.  Once Lloyd joined the Trump administration, he was put in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the same department which oversees the care of separated children. Lloyd later acknowledged during congressional testimony in February 2019, that he never raised the concerns expressed by the medical and psychological teams present at his own agency, that the policy would cause irreparable harm to children.

Soboroff goes to great pains to stress that he was pursuing different immigration stories when he stumbled upon/almost missed the family separation policy.  To refresh everyone’s memory, this policy was being denied by the Trump administration just days before it was formally ended by his own executive order.  In essence, this book is Soboroff’s own mea culpa for initially missing the storyAs such, he spent the last several years writing this book and meticulously chronicling the development and subsequent implementation of the policy. 

Separated had the potential to veer too far into punditry (albeit self-deprecating, ironic punditry) which Soboroff avoided by interweaving his whole narrative with the personal stories of Juan and José, a father and 14 year-old son.  Juan and José were escaping cartel violence in their home in Guatemala when they illegally crossed the Arizona border, near Yuma.  Juan and José and their shared sense of terror, dehumanization and tragedy ground the book in the reality of the human cost to something vaguely decided in Washington D.C.

Ultimately, this is a story of an administration willing to do anything – regardless of the morality, the ethics, or the damage – to make good on an impossible campaign promise.  Of course, the one thing that they were not willing to do was acknowledge the persistent evidence that combatting migration from Central America hinges upon foreign aid.  While the separations were at their peak, the administration canceled the aid to countries like Guatemala.  By doing so, they ensured the defunding of successful programs throughout Central America which were helping to keep families safe and above poverty line.  These types of programs lessen the need for migration in the first place.

If one is wondering if anyone in any government agency tried to keep Trump appointees from enacting such a horrific policy – the answer is yes. Soboroff highlights the efforts of Commander Jonathan White and other career officials throughout federal agencies who did everything in their power to thwart, stall and blatantly defy the administration’s objectives.  Many employees, for example, were working to create an interagency paper trail linking separated children and their parents.  When it became clear that a paper trail with precise numbers of separated children was becoming a potential PR liability, Scott Lloyd suggested the list’s destruction. It was also career officials subordinate to Lloyd who kept Excel sheets and other data hidden from their bosses, in hopes of eventually being able to reunify families.  Commander White was later tasked with family reunification after the policy was ended.

Separated is written more as a political chronicle than narrative, making it challenging to follow at some points.  Far more significantly, this work is a continuous onslaught of emotional gut-punches.  The inhumanity.  The gross incompetence.  The callousness and fecklessness.  I often found myself having to put it down between chapters. 

All that said, it simply needs to be read.

The family separation policy was undoubtedly depraved but also the logical extension of the administration’s constant dehumanization of and delegitimization of the immigrant experience.  In this sense, the policy is a microcosm of the moral vacuum that is the Trump era.

If you are interested in supporting children and families separated at border, please read, Elle magazine’s 5 Ways to Help Migrant Children and Families Right Now.

Update – 2/2/21

If anyone is interested on how the Biden administration will be approaching immigration, Biden’s recent executive orders provide a glimpse into his desire to immediately tackle several immigration crises at once. Just today, he signed a (largely symbolic) order committing to reuniting separated families. Obviously, any immigration-related legislation will be nearly impossible to pass through this Congress. That being said, I was sincerely skeptical that he would do anything with immigration in the first 100 days of his presidency with COVID-19 still defining any sort of significant administrative agenda. In this instance, it feels good to be proven wrong.

2 thoughts on “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy

  1. The realities – the details of what you have written, is heart breaking to me. I feel hopeless. I read the Elle article and will make a donation.


    1. As devastating as it was, the policy was reversed because so many of us in the wider public saw it for moral depravity that it was. The administration folded under the outcry.
      Thank you for making the donation…


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