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'Separated': Jacob Soboroff Examines the Immigration Crisis at the Border

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Art Streiber for MSNBC

Jacob Soboroff was working as a correspondent for NBC and MSNBC at the end of 2015, covering immigration on the US-Mexico border. On the occasion of a press tour inside a detention facility in Brownsville where 1500 young boys were being held and where reporters were not allowed to bring in recording equipment, Jacob Soboroff put pen to paper, writing notes and filling the pages of a small notebook. Those notes became the seedbed of Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, an expansive, complex, and multi-layered story about the immigration crisis and the policy that separates families seeking asylum in the United States.

Yvette Benavides: So how did this story—this one about the immigration crisis on the border with all of its related complicated issues—become your beat? Because you have a kind of an unconventional path toward journalism, but this is such a critical story, and it's been that way for a long time. How did it become your, your beat?

Jacob Soboroff: Unintentionally? Honestly, when I joined MSNBC in 2015, I really started as a political correspondent. I did a lot of election coverage, but I'm born and raised in Southern California and covering immigration related topics is really unavoidable here. It's a city that's 50% Latinx, and you can't live in LA without immigration or immigrants being a part of your everyday life. And so I started doing more stories focused on immigration when the candidate, Donald Trump, started talking about building his wall, but I had done some coverage of immigration issues during the Obama administration before I was at MSNBC, looking at the deportations of the Obama era, which, you know, everybody should remember were widely criticized. He deported more people than anyone, any other president ever before, but ultimately I stumbled into reporting on border issues and continued to do so throughout the end of the Obama administration into the beginning of the Trump administration and eventually, I ended up without knowing it in the middle of the family separation crisis while working on an hour-long special for Dateline about the realities of life along the Southern border.


YB: You included this Cronkite quote in your speech when you received an award named after Walter Cronkite. To paraphrase, he said that in journalism, we hold up this mirror and tell and show the story. So this book, Separated, does that with this painstaking attention to facts and details and names and this chronology, but it started with your little notebook that you purchased at a drug store, and that ended up in a storage unit for a time until you unearthed it and started this book. I really like that story about the ephemera of a reporter's day-to-day life being the seedbed for this book. I mean, week after week, month after month, you reported on the story and then returned to the scribbles that only you could decipher in this book. I just love that story.

JS: Thank you. Yeah, it gives me the chills, actually, to think about, you know, when I'm not in the business of taking notes in a notebook. I'm a TV correspondent, and so I'm not used to that, but when I got the call that we were going to get access to Casa Padre, the shelter, nominally, in Brownsville that was holding 1500 young boys, hundreds of them separated systematically by the Trump administration, there was going to be a no-camera tour. Pen and paper only. And so I pulled over on the way from the tiny Brownsville South Padre International Airport at a Walgreen’s and ran in and grabbed the notebook and bought a pen, and actually some dry shampoo, and Gatorade and I brought all that stuff with me in the car to the tour. And it was that notebook, a small little notebook, 50 pages, and, I don't know, only five inches tall. It was a little thing that could fit in my back pocket. I took that into the center with me. And I brought it with me again the following week when I went on Father’s Day into the Ursula Border Patrol Processing Station […] where there are also kids in cages under the Mylar blankets guarded by security contractors in the watchtower. And I brought it home with me, and it came with me as well to[…] ICE detention center in the high desert, where I met a separated father for the first time and it came with me to a courtroom, in San Diego where I watched the federal judge, Dana Sabra, work with the government and the ACLU to ultimately reunite as many of these children as possible. And when I decided to write the book, when I started to write the book, it was the first thing that I thought about. I was terrified that I had lost it because I had moved from a rental house into our first home that we purchased and I'm sitting in right now, and I put it in a storage unit in a bag, and it was buried under the Christmas decorations and an old baby changing table, which incidentally is now back in the house because we had our second child, and I had to find it. And when I finally found it, my heart was absolutely racing because it immediately brought back the visceral things that I saw and that I experienced when I was in the middle of this policy. And so that was my jumping off point. It was…those were the facts on the ground that I had seen myself. In going through it, I realized what I had missed. It was a lot of the details about how this could have possibly happened and why. You know, I saw this in real-time and I saw what it looked like, but I never, it wasn't a critical look at the policy. It was just a fact- based, real-time look. And that's what that notebook had. And then I sort of figured out, well, all these pages are filled up, but where are the blanks that aren't on the pages? And that's what the book is.

YB: And you mentioned your young children. I struggle to say the words “tender age,” knowing what it will now and forever imply to all of us. I know you've described it often on television and in your book. But can you take us there? What was it like to see those young children there, any human beings in, in what are, in effect, cages?

JS: It makes me sick every time I talk about it, especially the Ursula border patrol processing station. Not because it existed because, you know, frankly, and I didn't know about it at the time, it should have made me sick in 2014 when the Obama administration stood up the facility and put unaccompanied, migrant children in those cages. But it made me particularly incensed and also, you know, 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 in doing that, the government created, in that moment, for all of these children, lifelong trauma. You know, childhood trauma creates a century of suffering, is how one official described this to me who was involved in the policy. And that's what I saw with my own eyes. 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 was, it's something that I'll never forget because of the weight that everyone felt. The children are being traumatized in real-time. The agents didn't know what to do. I had never seen anything like it, and nobody knew why. It was just… this was happening. And this was happening in the United States of America. And to try to process that all at the same time, I don't think it was possible actually. And, and that, you know, that the other reason that I wanted to write the book, to really think through what this was that I experienced. And that pales in comparison to what these families experienced.

YB: As you mentioned, we've had presidency after presidency—I mean even back from Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now—where these immigration issues have not been resolved. To use a really inhospitable natural landscape of the border against these desperate folks seems tragic and terrible, but it seems like the cruelty has never been the point before, as much as it has been under this presidency. Trump has said that he inherited these problems with immigration at the border and these detentions and these processes from previous presidencies, but then Stephen Miller, who is the immigration policy advisor to Trump has said that these stories about childhood separation and detention on the border actually play well with their political base. So do you think this is the case? I mean, is it? It's not just a matter, of course, of this terribly long history, that's just seems so rooted with the border being…There's this conflation about criminality with these humanitarian issues that people just don't understand, but it seems like cruelty is now the point.

JS: I think Adam Serwer was right, and that the cruelty was or is the point. And you're right. For a deterrence-based policy that has made migrants go through dangerous and deadly journeys to get here, often dying and dying in pretty constant numbers, despite the fact that the overall numbers of crossings were going down before Trump. I mean that's just the evidence that you need that the government policy was leading to people dying, but never, never was the stated aim to deter people by taking them from their parents in this systematic way where 5,400 kids ultimately were taken from their parents by the Trump administration. And that, that was done on purpose. It doesn't matter what they say. The documents are in the book. Kierstjen Nielsen, who was the Homeland Security secretary, signed the policy into existence. Despite the fact that she denied that there was a policy in the first place, she was warned that it would violate the constitutional rights of these migrants and the memo from her general counsel was in the book and reported on specifically using the words in the memo for the first time. Scott Lloyd, the head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement who was supposedly in charge custodially of these children at one point thought about getting rid of the list of 700 separated children after it leaked to the New York Times. You know, probably, employees, career officials, at the agency talked about to me, what type of negligence they considered that to be and how cruel ultimately that would have been preventing the reunification of those children with their parents. So there are too many examples of people being warned about what this policy was going to do to the children and to their parents and not stopping. There were multiple inflection points that I had no idea about that I had sort of uncovered and sort of now understand better. And were put in the book where this could have been stopped. And instead the Trump administration and—and that is where the responsibility lies, on the Trump administration—decided to press forward. And the result is, you know, a century of suffering for a generation of children who were subject to this policy.

YB: Well, the border and these immigration issues have comprised such a big part of Trump's playbook. I mean, unapologetically the chant of “ build that wall” or the threat of building the wall from the very beginning, from that earliest moment when he announced he was running for president, and we know that this sort of energy that fueled his campaign has not abated. I mean, obviously, and in some ways, it's taken hold again or some form of it has. And in 2016 we heard “Build that wall,” in 2018 midterm elections, Trump sends General Mattis to the border with, you know, with razor wire and troops. Do you think we're going to see some sort of news on the border with the run- up to the election in November?

JS: I think we're already seeing it in some measure. You know, there have been talks about the military going down to the border again, and some reporting on that, but I mean, family separations are still in the repertoire of this administration. There's 130 or so kids in family detention right now with their parents who were ordered released by the Trump administration. The administration and ICE couldn't release them together as a family right now. And Chad Wolfe, the acting secretary of Homeland Security described on Fox News just yesterday that he wasn't going to quote unquote “jail break them all out.” In the midst of a COVID pandemic when he has the ability to do so. They are holding the lives of migrants-- hostage is the only word that I can think of—when they have the ability to let them go and to let them free. And we've seen this pattern before. They don't want to look weak, what they perceive as weak, on immigration and, on the contrary, they want to have the most restrictive and extreme policies possible. So here we are again with family separations in the middle of a pandemic on the verge of the presidential election.

YB: Interspersed here in your book are the stories about Juan and José, not their real names, but a very real, all too real story about this father and son, from Guatemala that you met when you were covering these many stories. They really humanize what is a book full of this painstaking research and sourcing. Out of all the people you met over the years, how did it come to be that they are the ones whose story you extended across the book in these ways?

JS: Well, I met, and as you mentioned, Juan and José are not their real names. They picked the names Juan and José. I spent a lot of time with them. And we ultimately decided that… they ultimately decided, I should say, that it was in their best interest, in the security interest of their family that they left behind to use pseudonyms in the book, despite the fact that I had worked with them previously. The reason I wanted to include their stories in the book is that they're not the perfect story of the perfect migrants to the United States. And they wanted me to know that and they wanted everybody to know that. And again, Juan had come to the US twice before coming with José and getting separated. He came as an economic migrant and crossed the border illegally and didn't get caught. And I write about it. He says it to me when we're having dinner in Washington, DC one night after it had been reunited, he kind of smiles and laughs about it, but that's the truth. And nobody's perfect. And when they faced threats of narco-violence in Peten in Guatemala, they decided to go to in their estimation, save the life of Juan and not the son José. And it isn’t a perfect story. You know, he's not, they're not some example that, you know, you can hold up to say, “this is how it should be done,” but that's how life is, isn't it, you know, and that's why I picked them. It wasn't a mother with a young daughter, or, I mean, there are so many examples, horrifically, to choose from—breastfeeding mothers and children, you know, multiple kids coming with parents, being taken, parents, being deported immediately sent back to their home countries and the children left in the United States. But I came to care about them. But I also thought that their story was important because it wasn't a simple story. What they had to endure was the same as everyone else, insofar as they just had no idea what was coming and when they got here to what they thought, represented safety and security, instead, they were taken into separate cells and didn't see each other again for almost five months.

YB: I'm from the border. I was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and I've traveled all up and down the Texas Mexico border. No one border city is like another, and yet they all have shared qualities, too. People think they know what the border is, but I don't think people can really, really appreciate what it's like, that space is like. What can you impart to our listeners about what the border is really like? if we can also focus on the shared qualities rather than just the idiosyncratic ones that would make, you know, Laredo different from Brownsville, but a way to erase….that’s one of the things about your book, I think, that emerges for me again and again… a way to erase the preconceived ideas. And you've walked the walk in these spaces and can offer other perspectives. So what would you say about that to just sort of erase these preconceived ideas that people have?

JS: Yeah. Well, the first thing I want to say is no one knows the borderlands, like the residents of the borderlands, and I'm not one. But I spent a lot of time all across the Southwest border from San Diego to Boca Chica State Park at the very end of where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico, and the biggest misconception—and this is one fueled by the president himself—is that the borderlands is a violent places. On the contrary, I don't think I've been to a more welcoming part of the country than the US-Mexico border. People are kind, people are caring, many communities, most communities are binational, where people are crossing on a daily basis, whether it's to go to school or to work, whether it's Americans living South of the border coming North or vice versa. These are interconnected communities that value their culture and value each other. And the idea that even though there is violence on the other side of the border, that it spills over into this country and it defines some way of life, whether it's in San Diego or El Paso or Eagle pass, or Brownsville, I mean, wherever, wherever I've been, it just isn't the way that it is. The reality on the ground, I always find this, in wherever and whatever I report, but particularly along the border, the perception of what goes on is so different from the reality. And there were a few places that I'd rather that I'd rather be as a reporter than, than along the border. I've never felt more welcome than I do there, no matter where I go.

YB: Well, we see the span of years that the book covers and it feels like you've been working on it until very, very recently. I was so surprised to read details about COVID-19 here in your book. I mean, even in your final note about being in the laundry room, in your new sort of home office working in there. What's going to happen next? I mean, we talked a little bit about the detention centers and the pandemic. I'm really worried about, there's this humanitarian crisis, plus, now that's just sort of simmering. What can happen next? What can happen? I mean, this is maybe this is a really unfair question, but what can possibly happen next or what can possibly happen if we can imagine a different president in 2021?

JS: Well, that's what I was gonna say. I think it largely depends on what happens with the election, but we don't…Even if Biden won, we don't know what Biden would necessarily do. What we do know is today asylum, as we know it, is gone, migration across the Southwest border is forever changed. Tens of thousands of people are waiting because of the MPP program in these cities in Mexico directly on the other side of the border. And thousands of unaccompanied migrant children are being turned back and expelled from the country immediately once they get here now, you know, under the cover of a reaction to the coronavirus. And inside the Department of Health and Human Services are less than a thousand unaccompanied minor children today, when two years ago, when I was there at the height of the crisis, the number was over 10,000. So the honest answer is I was an advance guy in college to the mayor of New York and then later to a presidential candidate. And then what I learned is if you don't know the answer, say, I don't know. And the truth is, I don't know. It depends on what our political leadership wants to do, and if it's the Trump administration, I can only imagine that we'll get more restrictive. And it's on his opponent to lay out what the borderlands will look like, what asylum will look like in a Biden administration.

YB: We're living in a time when we're questioning certain monuments to history and their real legacy. And even of our lexical choices, not just in a way toward a nod to political correctness, but just a thoughtful way to communicate clearly. And I was thinking about how these issues that you cover in your book. How in the world could they intersect somehow with this incredible momentum that we had a couple of weeks ago, a few weeks ago, with the protests against police brutality after the death of George Floyd? And I was just watching the momentum tick up and up and up and wondering how would that look for this issue that has really been an issue for years and years and years? Why, why doesn't this…what is a, a real humanitarian crisis…why hasn't it ever just taken hold?

JS: Because I think it feels “Other” to people in the United States. And that's part of the reason I wanted to name the book Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, because that's what this is and how does it relate to what we're seeing in the streets? And how does it relate to the movements that many of us have been a part of, you know, over the course of the last couple of months? I think that the violence and the systematic racism and discrimination that we’re having a real reckoning with right now, it's all part of America. And this is America, and the way we treat migrants and refugees is America. It isn't, it isn't someplace else or someone else. And if there's anything that I hope the book accomplishes is that, you know, we think differently about what the United States is. So many people who've come here for a better life—and it's cliché—but for a better life, believe in America, but this is what America did to them. So when I say “Separated,” you know, it's, it's the physical act of what happened to Juan and José and 5,000 plus other families. But it's also a sort of a state of mind that admittedly, I had, a separation from the reality of how we got here. And I think many of us also had, not all of us, but many of us. And so not until we can sort of reckon with the fact that this is our country, all of it, I don't think we'll be able to move on from that.

YB: Jacob Soboroff, thank you so much for your time and for the gift of this book.

JS: I'm grateful to you. That means a lot to me. Thank you.