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Separated: Inside an American Tragedy

October 28, 2020

Cover of Separated: Inside an American Tragedy

reflections by Father Robert Holmes, CSB

Jacob Soboroff, a national news correspondent for NBC and MSNBC, was among the first journalists to expose the reality of the systematic separation of desperate migrant families at the U.S. – Mexico border. In his book Separated he tells the multilayered, complex story that took two years of reporting to research. Soboroff documents both the unspeakable horror migrants experienced in family separations but also how Donald Trump’s American tragedy was able to happen.

Soboroff divides the story of his investigative journalism into three stages, beginning with Donald Trump’s stated goals in 2017 of stopping “the single-biggest problem along the southwestern border: drugs coming in and killing Americans.” (p 33). On the fifth day of his presidency he called for the end of “catch and release” of migrants crossing the border. Immigration violations became a criminal rather than a civil offence. Entire families were placed in detention centers. Family separation was being considered as a way to deter migration to the U.S. Soboroff met with Customs and Border Protection officials and learned that the major drug traffic was not related to migrants and that families were being housed in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Stage two begins with a bombshell revelation when, in June 2018, journalists were able to visit a shelter for the first time. It was in Brownsville, Texas in a converted Walmart store housing 1500 migrant boys ages 10 to 17. Soboroff described their situation as “incarceration.” He learned that 400 of the boys had been separated from their families and his reports outside the building went live on MSNBC and shocked the nation. Five days later, journalists were allowed to visit the Border Patrol Processing Center near McAllen, Texas. Inquiring about the family separation they were told that the order came down in May and already 1,174 kids had been separated from their parents. The report, once again, spread nationwide causing a nationwide outcry. Even Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, called on her father to end the family separation. He reluctantly did.

A California judge ordered reunification – separated families are to be reunited. This begins stage 3 of the story. But there is no record of where the parents were being detained (is this deliberate?) and 400 parents had already been deported without their children. A team was set up to work on it. It took a year and a half.

Throughout the reporting in each stage Soboroff humanizes the account by telling the story of Juan and his son José who fled danger from drug lords in Guatemala and sought asylum in the U.S. Separated and sent to different detention centers they were kept apart for four months. Even on reuniting they still faced deportation but were successful in their asylum appeal.


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