How a Trump-era policy that separated thousands of migrant families came to pass

The Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy separated over 5,000 children from their parents, with no tracking process or records that would allow them to be reunited. Atlantic staff writer Caitlin Dickerson joins Geoff Bennett to discuss her investigation into the policy.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    We take a look now at an 18 month investigation into former President Trump's zero tolerance immigration policy. We need to take away children, the secret history of the U.S. government's family separation policy. That is the cover story of the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine. During the Trump administration, more than 5000 children were separated from their parents with no tracking process that would allow them to be reunited. I spoke with Atlantic staff writer Caitlin Dickerson about her exhaustive investigative piece, starting with the policy's origins.

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    The whole country was looking at and talking about zero tolerance. The focus was on Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General and Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the Homeland Security Secretary at the time. But I discovered this idea came from a man named Tom Homan. He was the head of ICE under the Trump administration, but he's been in border enforcement for decades starting as a border patrol agent and early 20s. He came up with the idea to separate families as a deterrent for migration. He first proposed it during the Obama administration. At the time, Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security Secretary said no, declined to proceed, and then the idea resurfaces again under Trump, when it's ultimately approved.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So pull back the curtain if you can on the bureaucracy at the time, you say that there were sort of factions within the Trump administration, you had the careerists, the more moderate types. And then you had the hawks. And then you also had Stephen Miller, the hardline Immigration Senior Advisor, who was known for espousing white nationalist ideologies, give us a sense of how all of those competing groups within the administration are talking about this policy?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    So it's really no surprise that people who are well known for their hawkish views on immigration like Stephen Miller, like Gene Hamilton, a close colleague of Miller's, who worked at the Department of Justice, were pushing for really harsh enforcement policies, including the separation of families. But one of the most interesting things I took away from this story was the degree to which people from within the bureaucracy, you know, people who held a political roles who had served under Presidents, both Republican and Democrat, also went along with zero tolerance, sometimes without even fully realizing it at the time.

    So some of them told me, you know, yes, I remember being in meetings about separating families or about prosecuting parents in a way that I knew would require parents to be separated from their children. But they would say, you know, it wasn't strategic at the time for me to speak up and push back against Stephen Miller, given how much influence he had over the president. Others told me that they thought the idea was so outlandish that it would never be approved. So unfortunately, as a result of that, you have a series of conversations that take place over the course of two years and many discussions and many opportunities that people had to push back and they just didn't take those opportunities. And so that's how the policy ends up making it over the finish line, and then to the implementation stage.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You also paint a picture of the lasting damage, the trauma that has really fallen, the families who were separated, you talk to a 36-year-old farmer from the highlands of Guatemala, who crossed the border with his five-year-old daughter. What did he tell you?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    So Nesario Jacinto Korio (ph), I met him in 2018 over the phone, after he'd been deported back to Guatemala without his daughter. He was one of many parents who were told that if they agreed to their own deportation, they would get their children back. And of course, they didn't. Reunifications of separated families didn't start in earnest until they were mandated in a federal court case. At that point, many families had already been separated for months. And of course, now, some families are still separated and have been so for years.

    Nesario (ph) was completely inconsolable when we first spoke. I mean, it was hard for him to even focus on the conversation we were having because he just wanted answers, you know, and he had very little information. He's in this rural area. His families living off $4 a week if that, you know, if they're lucky enough to make it. He didn't have a TV to get information. He was sometimes relying on radio reports to try to figure out where his daughter was, and when he was going to get her back. And even today, when I interviewed him for this story, he tried to put Philomena on the phone to answer a few questions for me, she immediately burst into tears. I mean, just thinking for a few minutes about what happened. Even though so much time has passed. This experience is still with them every day.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    As I was reporting the story from the White House covering the Trump administration, one of the things that I found the hardest to do was to get a sense from the border patrol agents who are the ones on the ground actually removing, in some cases forcibly tearing their kids, tearing the migrants kids away from their parents, how they were able to do that? Why they did that? Even though that was the stated policy.

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    As separations playing out, you know, you hear very dramatic stories from parents and children and then you would talk to the administration and you would hear that everything was going very smoothly, very humanely, the clear communication was taking place and so you had these two completely divergent accounts of what was going on.

    Of course, reporters like us, we didn't get access to these facilities. We weren't able to watch it happen because we weren't allowed to at the time. And so I worked really hard to get other first-hand accounts of separations. I eventually connected with a woman named Neris González. She's a Salvadoran consular worker who is based in the Ursula Processing Center in South Texas, one of the biggest processing centers in the country. Naris watched hundreds of separations take place. And she said, she's still shaken today by what she saw, you know, a sea of parents and children being pulled apart all at the same time in this incredibly chaotic fashion. You know, literally children were being pulled on one arm by a border patrol agent and on the other arm by their parent, you know, screaming and crying. She says she's still haunted by the sounds of the facility today.

    She spent a lot of her time in the cells were separated, children were being held and, they would, you know, grab onto her legs, grab onto her belt, you know, anything that they could to try to just beg her for information, and then really asked her not to leave them alone at the end of the day, because they were so confused about what was going on. And clearly so shocked.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And looking ahead, Caitlin, what does accountability look like? I remember asking it was then President Elect Joe Biden about this. And he said that the Trump administration officials responsible for this policy needed to be held to account. So far, the administration hasn't done that, what they've done is tried to reunite as many children and parents as they possibly can. But you interviewed the current DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, did he have anything to say about that?

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Secretary, my orcas told me that accountability falls to the DOJ. But as you know, Geoff, the DOJ has actually been defending family separation in court and civil litigation brought by separated families seeking damages. There are cases against the government agencies involved but also individual officials and DOJ represents in both cases, they've defended the individuals involved in family separation, you know, including Stephen Miller, including Kirstjen Nielsen, and the like. And so you're really not seeing any efforts at this point made toward holding accountable those responsible, to those who were responsible. And at the same time, there is no law saying that family separations couldn't start again tomorrow. The Biden administration has been clear, it's not something they plan to do. But there are lots of Republican potential candidates in 2024, including President Trump, who still believe in this idea and would like to see it re-implemented.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Caitlin Dickerson, the reporting for the cover story in the latest issue of the Atlantic. It is exhaustive, it is exceptional. Thanks so much for being with us.

  • Caitlin Dickerson:

    Thank you so much, Geoff.

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