The Current

Trump's family separations at border played out 'exactly how it was designed to': journalist Jacob Soboroff

Journalist Jacob Soboroff, who visited a facility housing children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, says the Trump administration wanted to stoke public outcry to shock Congress into making immigration laws more restrictive.

Children 'left with a lifetime of trauma due to what the U.S. government did to them': Soboroff

Boys 10 to 17 years old, apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, photographed outside Casa Padre, a government-contracted youth shelter in Brownsville, Texas in June 2018. (ACF/HHS/Reuters)

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The Trump administration knew its "zero-tolerance" policy would separate thousands of children from their parents, yet it "ignored the warnings from multiple agencies on multiple fronts" to keep track of them to reunite them, says journalist Jacob Soboroff, who was among the first to report on family separations at the border.

A planning and policy deputy assistant director at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flagged "antiquated technology" that would hinder prompt reunification, he said. Meanwhile, a top Health and Human Services official warned the administration of the psychological trauma separating families would cause. 

"There are too many warnings to too many people to chalk this up to coincidence or disorganization," Soboroff told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"I think that what played out was exactly how it was designed to play out."

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Reporter talks with CBC's Natasha Fatah about situation of children living separated from their families

In June 2018, Soboroff, an investigative journalist for NBC News and MSNBC, was one of the few reporters invited to visit a facility housing children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border under the zero-tolerance policy instituted in April that year.

Since then, Soboroff has done additional reporting for his new book Separated: Inside an American Tragedy, which he said revealed that the Trump administration wanted to stoke public outcry to force Congress into making immigration laws more restrictive. 

He said Katie Miller, Mike Pence's press secretary, who at the time was a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, told him "explicitly the idea behind this policy was to shock not only the migrants, but the Congress of the U.S., to change the immigration laws, to make them more restrictive, to keep people out of this country — namely Central American migrants who are crossing at the southwest border." 

According to Soboroff, she wanted a journalist to characterize what was happening inside these facilities before the Democrats did.

"I think that she thought in one measure it would put a more positive — or at least the administration's spin — on what was happening there," he said. 

Miller has not addressed these specific remarks as reported in Soboroff's book. However, in response to Miller reportedly telling Soboroff she was unmoved by a visit to the border, and questioning the need for a Little Havana, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she spoke to Miller who said "those quotes are not true as described in the book."

Vice-President Press Secretary Katie Miller is seen last year at a White House state dinner alongside her now-husband, Trump adviser Stephen Miller. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Separation constituted torture: report

In 2018, Soboroff visited Casa Padre, a detention centre in Brownsville, Texas converted from a Walmart, which housed 1,500 boys, aged 10 to 17. 

He said he saw hundreds of children in cafeteria lines, who were detained inside for 22 or 23 hours, depending on the day of the week. He saw five beds crammed into rooms that were supposed to have four. 

"These children, ostensibly, were in a government-run shelter," Soboroff said, but it was "as clear as day" that they were incarcerated. 

He noted a February 2020 report released by Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S. not-for-profit, which found the separation of migrant children and families at the border constituted torture. 

"Many of these children … were there to seek asylum, fleeing some type of violence and expected to step onto U.S. soil and receive refuge, freedom and help in the most simple sense," he said. "And instead were systematically taken away by the Trump administration."

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), apprehensions of families and children at the southwest border increased by 34 per cent from fiscal year 2017 to FY 2018. Family detentions rose from 75,000 to about 107,200 and the number of detained children went from at least 41,400 to 50,000. 

President Donald Trump holds up the executive order he signed to end family separations, during an event in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, June 20, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Amid increasing pressure, Trump signed an executive order halting his administration's policy of separating children from their parents in June 2018, but the order did not end the zero-tolerance policy itself. Later that month, a California judge ordered U.S. border authorities to reunite separated families within 30 days.

The total number of families separated during the zero-tolerance period is not known, but Soboroff said the roughly 2,800 children who were taken from their parents at that time have been either reunited or placed with a family member or a sponsor in the U.S. interior. Citing records from non-governmental organizations, he said more than a 1,000 children who were separated prior to the policy are not all accounted for.

'The excuse is the coronavirus'

Soboroff believes that when he was invited to tour the Brownsville facility, Miller wanted "the cruelty of what was happening inside these facilities" to force Congress to do two things — indefinitely detain families, which is illegal under U.S. law, and immediately expel unaccompanied migrant children from Central America. 

Ultimately, the administration wasn't able to accomplish either goals through Congress, he said, but "under the cover of COVID-19, they're actually now doing both."

"We're seeing right now immigration — our asylum system — effectively gutted, with COVID as the excuse," Soboroff said. "There is no asylum system in the United States as we once knew it."

He added that it's almost impossible for children similar to the ones detained in 2018 to make their way into the U.S. They're being turned around and sent back to their home countries under proclamations Trump signed on April 22, and June 22, temporarily suspending immigration to the U.S. 

"The excuse is the coronavirus. But according to reporting from ProPublica … most of the children, if not, all of the children, who are being sent back, have tested negative for coronavirus," he said. 

Soboroff says the children separated at the border have been 'left with a lifetime of trauma due to what the U.S. government did to them.' (Matt Carr/Getty Images)

Trump, Biden on immigration 

Trump centered his 2016 presidential campaign around immigration, which remains a top priority for the 2020 election.

Ahead of the first presidential debate on Sep. 29, the Trump campaign revealed its take on immigration in a statement to Newsweek.

"President Trump believes that immigration is not only a national security issue, but an economic one, especially as America moves to re-open. Voters are concerned about Joe Biden's plan to grant amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants while simultaneously sidelining Americans who are jobless because of the coronavirus," said Ken Farnaso, the campaign's deputy national press secretary.

Trump has previously denied reports he wants to reinstate the family separation policy, but Soboroff said he "wouldn't be surprised if he wins, if he attempts to bring it back."

During a Telemundo interview on Sep. 15, Democratic nominee Joe Biden said that immigrants have the courage to get on a boat, a car, or cross a border for better opportunity.

"It takes optimism, it takes determination, it takes courage, and that's who we are," Biden said. "And he's [Trump] the antithesis of that."

Biden has said he would end family separation if elected.

Among other stories, Soboroff's book includes a 2018 incident report on a five-year-old who developed suicidal ideations after being separated and detained.

"I'm not saying every child had suicidal ideations. But every single child will be left with a lifetime of trauma due to what the U.S. government did to them," he said. "Everyone has their own individual story here. I hope that each one of them — for the sake of their mental health, their sanity, and for the sake of our nation — are told."

Written by Tahiat Mahboob. Interview produced by Ben Jamieson.

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