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Earlier this month, we published Caitlin Dickerson’s 18-month investigation into the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, the result of more than 150 interviews and a review of thousands of pages of government records, some of which were obtained after a multiyear lawsuit. At nearly 30,000 words, Caitlin’s cover story is one of the longest Atlantic articles in memory.
Today we’re sharing nine of the biggest takeaways from her story. We hope that it’s a useful resource, whether you’ve already read Caitlin’s article or are taking this as an entry point to her work.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
- America’s fall booster plan has a fatal paradox.
- A shortcut for feeling just a little happier
- Actually, canceling student debt will cut inflation.
“The Policy Was Wrong, Period”
- During the Trump administration, family separations began in secret in the summer of 2017 as part of a regional program to combat illegal crossings in the Border Patrol’s El Paso, Texas, sector. Jeff Self, the Border Patrol chief in El Paso, spearheaded the initiative following a general directive from Washington that encouraged local officials to take steps to minimize border crossings in their regions, in accordance with President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to voters.
This local separation program later expanded to New Mexico. These initiatives help to account for the more than 1,700 family separations that occurred before they were publicly acknowledged by the Trump administration in the summer of 2018, according to government records provided to the ACLU as part of a federal lawsuit over family separations.
- Records obtained by The Atlantic show that officials at DHS and its components acknowledged in writing that these unannounced early family separations would likely be viewed negatively if they were to be made public. (Carla Provost, the acting head of the Border Patrol, wrote to her boss, the head of Customs and Border Protection, that “it has not blown up in the media as of yet but of course has the potential to.”) After that acknowledgment, these agencies produced public statements suggesting that separations were not occurring when, in reality, they were.
- After the Zero Tolerance separation policy was made public in the summer of 2018, Trump-administration officials claimed that their goal was merely to prosecute parents who crossed the border illegally with their children, not to separate relatives from one another. But myriad documents and interviews prove that this is explicitly false. For example, Tom Homan, who first proposed the idea to separate migrant families during the Obama administration and reraised it under President Trump, acknowledged as much: “Most parents don’t want to be separated,” Homan told Dickerson. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t think that would have an effect.” (Homan says his idea was intended to help families, not hurt them.)
Likewise, a report about the regional separation initiative in El Paso that was obtained by The Atlantic uses variations of the phrase family separation more than 10 times. Numerous other records show that the separation of families, not just the prosecution of parents, was the stated goal of the policy’s architects and many of those who pushed for it to be implemented.
- As word of a looming, nationwide family-separation program spread throughout the federal government, various officials tried to advocate against the practice by raising concerns with their supervisors. Though Dickerson was often told in her reporting that the worst outcomes of Zero Tolerance, such as the prolonged and even permanent separation of families, could not have been foreseen, internal government reports obtained by The Atlantic warned explicitly of those outcomes and recommended ways to prevent them. These warnings and recommendations were ignored.
- Records and interviews reflect the immense pressure to implement Zero Tolerance, not only from ideologically driven “hawks” such as Trump’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, but also from trusted, high-ranking law-enforcement officials serving in apolitical positions. Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Protection under Trump, is among those who took up the mantle of pushing for family separations, declaring his support for the idea in an email obtained by The Atlantic. Kirstjen Nielsen, the then–Homeland Security secretary, signed a memo approving of Zero Tolerance after a heated debate with McAleenan; Nielsen and others who overheard the discussion say that he argued, among other things, that “you can’t tell Customs and Border Protection not to enforce the law; you can’t exempt parents from prosecution; the president wants this.” (McAleenan denied ever pressuring Nielsen on his own behalf. He said that he did convey directives that he was receiving from the White House and others.)
A top lawyer working for one of the congressional committees that investigated family separations told Dickerson, “To me, the person who did not get enough scrutiny or enough blame or enough attention was Kevin McAleenan.” The lawyer said, “Kevin knew everything that was going on, he pushed it, he supported it, and he was the key to implementing it.” After Zero Tolerance ended, McAleenan said publicly that he felt it was a mistake. “The policy was wrong, period, from the outset,” he told Dickerson. “It should never have been undertaken by a law-enforcement department, even while facing the stark challenges we faced at the border.”
- The implementation of Zero Tolerance was a disaster. For 48 days, catastrophes cascaded. When Border Patrol agents were instructed to begin separating families under Zero Tolerance, they received little to no information about how to conduct separations or what to communicate to parents and children. After two and a half weeks, the Border Patrol leadership finally told agents to write down which children belonged to which parents. The guidance that agents received also vilified parents who crossed the border with their children, including those seeking asylum, for having chosen “to put their children in harm’s way.”
- The separations were brutal. Neris González, a Salvadoran consular worker who witnessed many of them, recalled a sea of children and parents, screaming, reaching for one another, and fighting the Border Patrol agents who were pulling them apart. Children were clinging to whatever part of their parents they could hold on to—arms, shirts, pant legs. “Finally the agent would pull hard and take away the child,” González said. “It was horrible. These weren’t some little animals that they were wrestling over; they were human children.”
- Record keeping about family separations was so lacking that when a magistrate judge in South Texas demanded that the Border Patrol there provide the court with weekly lists of separated children and their locations, threatening to hold the agency in contempt for failing to do so, agents panicked about their inability to fulfill such a basic request. “I might be spending some time in the slammer,” one supervisor wrote to a colleague, who replied, “I ain’t going to jail!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
- Within days of the start of Zero Tolerance, Matt Albence, a high-ranking deputy at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, expressed concern that if the parents’ prosecutions happened too swiftly, their children would still be waiting in Border Patrol stations to be picked up by Health and Human Services, making family reunification possible. He saw this as a bad thing. When Albence and other enforcement authorities received reports that reunifications had occurred in several Border Patrol sectors, they lamented the news in writing with comments like “we can’t have this” and “what a fiasco,” and took steps to prevent any further such reunifications from happening.
- The Justice Department ordered the release of a redacted version of the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
- New York’s highest court agreed to hear Harvey Weinstein’s appeal to overturn his 2020 sex-crimes conviction.
- Vladimir Putin ordered a 10 percent increase in the number of troops in the Russian military.
- Wait, What?: Mini-Trumps are a midterm disaster, Molly Jong-Fast writes.
- Deep Shtetl: Yair Rosenberg reflects on what a Holocaust orphan’s anthem from Shanghai can teach us about overcoming calamity.
Sports Streaming Makes Losers of Us All
By Alex Kirshner
Few things are more satisfying for a certain type of college-football fan than a Notre Dame loss, and all the better if it’s an upset. So last September, when the Fighting Irish were in danger of losing to the University of Toledo Rockets, 16.5-point underdogs, I knew I had to watch. First I flipped over to NBC, where Notre Dame’s home games are generally aired. No luck. Even before I could Google it, my Twitter feed reminded me of the problem: I had been Peacocked.
More From The Atlantic
- Whistleblowing is broken.
Read. Crooked Hallelujah, by Kelli Jo Ford, a woven-family story about how a place can pull generations of people together.
Or try something else from our list of books where the setting exposes the characters.
Watch. Vera Drake (available to rent on multiple platforms), a warm, community-focused period drama about a woman who provides illegal abortions in postwar Britain.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.