In this Monday, June 25, 2018 photo, a mother migrating from Honduras holds her 1-year-old child as surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol agents after illegally crossing the border, near McAllen, Texas.
( David J. Phillip, File
Melissa Harris-Perry: Between 2017 and 2021 more than 5,600 migrant families were separated at the US Southern border under the Trump administration's Zero Tolerance policy. The policy ended amidst public outrage, and during his second week in office, President Biden signed an executive order, establishing a family reunification task force.
President Biden: "We're going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers, and fathers at the border, and with no plan, none whatsoever to reunify the children who are still in custody and their parents."
Melissa Harris-Perry: A year and a half into Biden's presidency, there are still some families separated from one another. Caitlin Dickerson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and her latest investigative piece The Secret History of Family Separation is a sweeping nearly 30,000-word piece, chronicling the scope of family separation border policy. Caitlin, thanks so much for being here today on The Takeaway.
Caitlin Dickerson: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's just start with the most immediate, how many families remain separated as a result of the Trump-era Zero Tolerance policy?
Caitlin Dickerson: The number of families that remain separated today is somewhere between 700 and 1,000 according to government records. That overall 5,000 plus number speaks to the entirety of the Trump administration. Some of those separations happened under Zero Tolerance, which started in the summer of 2018. Some of them happened prior in pilot programs that originally began in secret, the country didn't know that they were going on. Part of the issue with reunifying these families today is that record keeping was really shockingly bad. In some cases, just nonexistent at all, some separations weren't documented anywhere.
That's why you have so many families that still according to government records haven't been brought back together. That number 700 to 1,000 is really large, and it is thought that some of those families have found ways to reunite with each other and not alerted the federal government to that, understandably not wanting to deal with the US government anymore, but there are more than 150 children who, to this day, the parents from whom they were separated still have not even been located by the American government. We just don't know where they are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We talk about this as a Trump-era policy, certainly there was public outrage at some of the images that resulted from important reporting during that time, but you also help us to understand that the Trump administration is not the first or last presidency or political administration to separate families at the border.
Caitlin Dickerson: That's right. This family separation that occurred under President Trump was an escalation of an approach to border enforcement known as Prevention by Deterrence, which really came out of 9/11. It was when the Department of Homeland Security decided to try implementing what they call consequences, which means prosecution against people crossing the border in order to discourage them from doing so.
This typically dealt with individual adults and often individual adult men who were migrant laborers coming from Mexico and its early phases, and then under Trump, of course, expanded to families.
Prior to the Trump administration, families were separated occasionally, including under the Obama administration, that fell entirely outside of federal policy, unless it was done with the explicit purpose for child safety, to protect a child who was thought to be crossing the border with somebody who was a threat to them, maybe they weren't the real parent, maybe they were the real parent but were facing very serious criminal charges unrelated to crossing the border and requesting asylum with their child.
Even though it did happen though, I should point out the numbers were far, far, far lower than they had been under Trump, and those numbers we really have never seen anything like it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For one moment, let's put aside the moral, the ethical, the humane. From a pure policy perspective, did these consequences work to reduce the number of migrants arriving at the Southern border?
Caitlin Dickerson: They don't work. Economists and other researchers who've looked at this issue for a very long time have pointed out that the main factors that influence immigration are much bigger, long-term trends. The economic circumstances in the countries that people are fleeing from as well as the economic circumstances here, which is why migration dropped really dramatically, for example, during and after the 2008 recession, because there was very little work available. Then, of course, also the longer-term trends around public safety and whether people feel like their families are safe in their homes on a day-to-day basis.
There is some research that shows on a very granular level and on individual-level consequences can be effective in that if you, Melissa, were caught crossing the border illegally and you were prosecuted for doing so, your personal likelihood of trying to do so again may go down, but it's just nowhere near on the scale in terms of effectiveness as, again, looking at these economic considerations and the public safety considerations, and whether people feel like they're safe on a daily basis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In your piece, you really delve into what family separation looked like, felt like, was experienced like, are there stories, maybe one that sticks out for you from your reporting?
Caitlin Dickerson: There are. That was really important to me to describe the separations themselves because, for years, we've only had the side of the story of the children and families who were involved and it was really impossible to get anybody from the border patrol to go on the record and talk about it, but I met a woman named Nares Gonzalez, who is a Salvador and consular worker. She's one of the few people who are outside of the federal government officials who were allowed to be in these detention centers when separations took place.
She's really still traumatized by what she saw. She described walking into the facility on the first day that separations were taking place and seeing a sea of crying and screaming children and families who were all being pulled on at the same time. She said that she would literally see kids where you'd have a parent holding onto one arm and pulling, and then a border patrol agent pulling onto the other arm so hard that she worried these kids were actually getting hurt, and parents wanting to fight back and these scenes were escalating.
There were times when she was actually asked by border patrol agents as a native Spanish speaker, someone from El Salvador to actually intervene and put herself physically between agents and parents to try to calm them down and explain the situation to them, which, of course, felt horrible to her but she thought that, in that moment, she was so out of control of what was going on that at the very least, what she wanted to do was prevent any of these children or parents from getting physically injured on top of the emotional trauma that they were enduring.
Once the parents were gone, she said that kids would surround her, just grab onto her arms, her legs, her belt loops, just beg her for information, beg her not to leave at the end of the day because they were so confused. More than anything, they just wanted to know where their parents were.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Looking ahead, what is the likely future of family separation policy at our border?
Caitlin Dickerson: There's nothing right now that prevents family separation from being implemented again tomorrow, certainly in a future Trump administration if one exists. President Trump pushed to reimplement family separations really immediately after he released an executive order ending them under political pressure he was facing from both Democrats and Republicans, but it was something that he lamented for the rest of his presidency and that he tried to convince people to go along with once again.
I think maybe more important than that one person in his views on family separation are the views of dozens of career order enforcement officials I interviewed, who told me they felt that it was successful. They still believe in the idea. They would say, "We would've really seen the success if we had just left it in place a couple of weeks longer. If we'd just held on for a little bit more time, it would've made a difference."
They believe so strongly in the effectiveness of deterrence and increasing the severity of deterrence alongside the increasing border crossings despite, again, years of research calling those conclusions into question.
Congress has done nothing to outlaw a future family separation policy. At one point, there was a lot of enthusiasm and momentum around outlawing the practice. That seems to have disappeared. Again, there's just nothing to prevent this from coming back, and still a lot of people working in border enforcement who believe it's a good idea.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Caitlin Dickerson is a staff writer at The Atlantic. You can read her latest investigative piece, The Secret History of Family Separation now. Caitlin, thanks so much for your time today.
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