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Investigation reveals how government bureaucracy failed to stop family separations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Trump administration was known for immigration policies that were chaotic and extreme, yet even by that standard, family separation was in its own category. Kids as young as infants were removed from their parents at the border, more than 5,500 children total. Hundreds are still not reunited. Caitlin Dickerson chronicled those policies in real time, first for The New York Times and now for The Atlantic. And her latest cover story for the magazine is an exhaustive investigation into how the family separation policy came about. Caitlin, good to have you back on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CAITLIN DICKERSON: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The Atlantic describes this as one of the longest stories it's ever published. You spent a year and a half working on it. A lot of it focuses on the inner workings of the governmental bureaucracy. So to start, tell us why this kind of authoritative account is important to have.

DICKERSON: Well, the idea to separate families, it's the culmination of an approach to securing the border that the United States government has taken really since 9/11. And it escalated over time alongside rising border crossings until you get to the Trump administration, which was very focused on trying to curtail immigration, both illegal immigration, as well as asylum seeking. The reason this exhaustive an account was necessary was because it's the most extreme implementation of consequences. And some families, hundreds of them, still have not been reunited today.

SHAPIRO: To give us a sense of what it felt like, can you tell us about a woman named Alma Acevedo who worked with an organization in Michigan called Bethany Christian Services?

DICKERSON: Sure. So Alma was a caseworker at a facility in Michigan where many of these separated children were dropped. And she's trained to work with traumatized children. She has a lot of experience. But she and other caseworkers said this was unlike anything they'd ever seen. Kids were completely inconsolable. They couldn't do anything other than play movies to try to keep kids calm. And she had no idea when they were going to be reunited.

SHAPIRO: So to go into the bureaucracy where this policy took shape, you basically say there were two kinds of people, the careerists and the hawks. What role did those groups play?

DICKERSON: So it was no surprise that, you know, the hawks, like Stephen Miller, were going to push for these really aggressive policies. But it's actually the bureaucrats, the career experts who went along with zero tolerance and family separations who are really important. They told me they were very concerned about separating families, but they stayed quiet. And when I asked why, they said, well, it wasn't strategic to speak up in these meetings or, you know, I couldn't alienate myself before Stephen Miller, given how much power he had in the administration. They figured someone else would intervene, and because of that, this policy was put into place.

SHAPIRO: So as you describe it, Stephen Miller at the White House was relentlessly pushing for this policy. He did not speak to you for this story. Somebody who did speak to you at length was someone who kind of became the face of the policy, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. And you write that throughout her tenure, she'd be accused by administration colleagues of being a squish, meaning not a true conservative. And each time, she'd go a little further to appease her critics until eventually, you write, she followed them off a cliff. She told you in your reporting that she wishes she had not signed the memo authorizing family separations. How do you understand her role?

DICKERSON: So Kirstjen Nielsen was the highest-ranking law enforcement official responsible for this policy. There's no way around that. But she didn't have good information when she made this decision. Someone like her comes into this role anticipating that Steven Miller is going to be exerting pressure from above to impose these harsh immigration policies. But it's the head of ICE, Tom Homan. It's the head of CBP, Kevin McAleenan.

SHAPIRO: Customs and Border Protection. Yeah.

DICKERSON: Thank you. Career immigration officials who said to her, not only is this a good idea, but we have systems and processes in place to ensure it's going to be implemented smoothly. And that wasn't true. And based on their advice, she made that decision.

SHAPIRO: There were so many things that the administration could have done to implement this in a more organized way. Like, why wasn't there an Excel spreadsheet, a document saying, here's where the parents detained and here's where the child has been sent? It would have made reunification so much easier. Why wasn't that done?

DICKERSON: The best answer I have for you is that anyone with that consideration in mind - reunification - they weren't allowed into these discussions. So Kirstjen Nielsen as DHS secretary, was being assured, it's OK. It's fine. We have a system. We have a process. And meanwhile, people within the bureaucracy who could have implemented that process and developed it, they were left out of the discussion. And when they raised red flags and said, hey, we're not ready to do this, they were completely ignored.

SHAPIRO: I want to try to understand where the people pushing for this policy were coming from. And I think perhaps the most vivid defense of it came from a man who actually first floated it in the Obama administration. He was acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement named Tom Homan. What was his rationale for why he thought this was a good idea?

DICKERSON: Tom Homan joined the Border Patrol in his early 20s. He's been in immigration enforcement his entire adult life. And he tells a story of in the early 2000s being called to the scene in south Texas of migrants in the back of a tractor trailer with no air conditioning. Many of them died, suffocated. And, you know, his response to that was to say, I have to stop this from ever happening again. His idea was, let's introduce a consequence so severe that no one wants to take their children on this dangerous journey.

You know, what he is missing, though, is that this system has actually been shown to increase these dangerous measures that migrant families take to get to the United States. You know, you don't get into the back of a tractor trailer and try to sneak into a country if you can go in the front door, if you can apply for a visa or if you can wait in line and be processed in a safe and humane way. And so he's got this laser focus on minimizing border crossings, but he only sees this one solution, which is punishment.

SHAPIRO: There's one detail that you weave into the beginning and end of this article. You describe doing interviews with former Trump officials who were involved in family separation. And over the phone, you hear them interacting with their own kids, saying, I love you, or giving them their lunch or getting them off to school. You could have written the story without those details. Why did you put them in?

DICKERSON: I think that they reflect why this moment in immigration enforcement in American history is so worth remembering and paying attention to. You know, people's kids are the centers of their lives. And, you know, they came up constantly in my interviews with people who would have to, you know, reschedule a conversation because they had to help their child, who had to, you know, put me on hold or give me a call back because they needed to go pick their child up from school. Then we would jump back into these interviews talking about life-altering moments for the children and families who were separated at the border. And it was as if these officials couldn't see the connection that I so clearly did between their own children and those who are impacted by this policy.

SHAPIRO: You describe this policy as a chapter of U.S. history, but as you chronicle the ongoing trauma that people subjected to the policy experienced, as you chronicle the desire by some former Trump administration officials to see this policy implemented again in the future, I wonder if history is really the right word.

DICKERSON: It's very much not history. You're right, Ari. There are over 150 children whose parents still have not been found by the American government and hundreds of kids who still haven't been reunited. Therapists who are helping those families that have been reunited to move forward say that they're in the very beginning stages of something that is just immensely destructive for the kids who were in the very early stages of development in many cases when they went through this. This is going to be a lifelong story for them, and we're going to be hearing from them for many decades.

SHAPIRO: Caitlin Dickerson is cover story for the latest issue of The Atlantic is published under the headline "We Need To Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family Separation Policy." Thank you for your reporting.

DICKERSON: Thank you so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.