“People’s Kids Are the Center of Their World” – Caitlin Dickerson on the Horrors of Family Separation

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. There is so much I never fully anticipated about parenthood, feeling perpetually unrested. That time, baby IM decided to do a full number two while I was giving him a bath this past Sunday, that was fun. The way his smile alone would make me feel 10 feet tall on even the cloudiest day.

One of the things I never fully expected was how much I’d miss my son all the time. Even when he sleep like he’s in the next room, Brit relax. But I knew in advance that some of the issues I cared most about would take on new meaning for me. I started my career in education and spent 13 years in the field daily asking myself that old maasai tribe greeting in the form of a question How are the children?

I even printed out that phrase to ensure that it sat on every desk I had, but there was nothing that could compare to having my own child and measuring everything against how it would impact him and how I’d respond as his mother. Family separation is something I pray to never have to endure. Of course it is a very real part of our American history. Enslaved children being sold off from their families, indigenous children being kidnapped to attend so-called Indian boarding schools, and modern day mass incarceration—all systems reliant on separating parents and caregivers from the children who need them most.

 And, not but, all of these abide in a deep wretched cruelty that was perhaps most fervently on display during the Trump administration. Trump’s family separation policy in many ways was the culmination of US practices and conservative rhetoric over hundreds of years and dozens of administrations. 

It was so vile. So convoluted. So evil that we are only now making sense of just how deep it went. And there are families who still have not been reunited. Every bit of that reality, which you’ll hear about in today’s episode, is my worst nightmare come true. So until we ask, how are the children and the answer for every last one of them is, well, we’ve got more work to do.


On the show today, I’ll be talking to Caitlin Dickerson of The Atlantic about her latest reporting on the Trump Administration’s so-called zero tolerance immigration policy. 

Caitlin Dickerson: Families walked off of the bus and really at the same time, you know, agents would approach the parents and start to take the children away saying almost nothing.

If anything, they said, you know, we’re under orders from President Trump. We have to take your kids away.

That’s coming up. But first it’s the news.

Let’s start with a hearty congratulations to the goat, the greatest of all times, Serena Williams. She is planning to step off the court, put down her racket, and move on to new. What I’m sure will be incredible things. Writing in Vogue, she says she doesn’t like the word retirement and she’s not great at saying goodbyes.

Instead, she wants to work on an evolution. She’ll be spending more time working with her venture capital firm and hopefully fulfilling her daughter’s wish for a baby sister. Serena, what can I say? You are an icon to me and so many other people, especially little Black girls who were trying to get in where everybody said we couldn’t fit in.

Thank you for your commitment to excellence, to kindness, and most importantly, to showing them what we can do.

On Sunday, the Senate adjourned for recess without voting on the Respect for Marriage Act. If pass the bill would codify same sex marriage into law, so the Supreme court can’t take that right away like it did with abortion earlier this year, you know, just whenever the mood strikes them, the legislation has passed in the house and President Biden is reportedly eager to sign it.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin: People need certainty that this is a time of great fear and anxiety about whether same-sex couples, marriage license will be valid. 

Brittany: Five Republicans have agreed to vote ‘yes’ on this bill, which means we need five more to get over that dag-blasted filibuster hurdle, but that likely won’t happen until September now.

Meanwhile, there has been a giant leap backwards for LGBTQ rights. So let’s break it down. As you know, state attorneys general are the officials who are tasked with advocating for the public’s interest and a whopping 22 of them are suing the Biden Administration to allow them to cut funding for districts who, get this, provide free school lunch to LGBTQ kids.

Why? Because of new policies that cut funding to any schools that discriminate against LGBTQ kids. I just wanna make sure you heard me they are suing so that they can discriminate against kids. I guess queer kids are just supposed to go hugry. Children, young people who aren’t allowed to vote, but still have to take the shit end of the laws. 

The lawsuit is led by the attorneys general of Indiana and Tennessee. And by the by, that Indiana guy is the same person who’s threatening the doctor who helped that 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio. So, you know, he sounds awesome. 

But here’s an important thing to always remember. Attorneys general are elected officials and nine of those attorneys general behind the lawsuit are up for reelection this year. So listen closely if you live in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, or Texas, or you just know somebody who knows somebody who does, this is your chance to make your voice heard.

Those states are also electing governors this year, so y’all know what to do, vote they asses out. And while you’re at it, call the Senate and tell them to pass the Respect for Marriage Act. Our LGBTQ siblings have fought too hard and too long to see their rights rolled back with the stroke of Clarence Thomas’ hateful ass pen.

Now, last week on the show, we celebrated the release of Beyoncé’s “Renaissance”. We laughed, we cried, literally, we ended the discussion on a simple note: Black women are underappreciated for all we do, and we deserve our flowers. 

Danyel Smith: I am truly, truly about Black women in music receiving the credit that they’re due, but I’m really about Black women just receiving the credit that we are due. We are denied it. 

Brittany: Well, today we applaud Queen B for doing the things she does best, making history, and breaking records. So how does she do it this time? Cuz you know my girl is always up to something. She landed “Renaissance” a number one spot on Billboard’s charts. Now topping the charts is not news for Beyoncé because she’s done it with her albums six times before, but with “Renaissance”, she’s now the first woman artist in history to have all seven of her solo albums debut at the number one spot on Billboard’s 200. 

The individual songs on “Renaissance” have also flourished since its release on July 29th. All 16 songs from the album have made it on Billboard’s hot 100 list so far.

All of this said, we know that Beyoncé’s cultural impact cannot be quantified. Her history making is unmeasurable. Record breaking always looks good on her anyway.

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Caitlin Dickerson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, about the Trump Administration’s disastrous family separation policy right after this short term break.

And we are back. So the Trump Administration called their border strategy, zero tolerance, but that doesn’t even begin to describe what it really was. It was a campaign to capture and lock up people crossing the United States at the Mexico border. It was an attempt to move everyone into the criminal system.

Even people who were legally seeking asylum. It overwhelmed the court system, the detention system, border enforcement institutions that were problematic to begin with. And it intentionally separated children from their parents without any plan for how those children would be cared for and then returned to their families.

Five years later, up to a thousand of those children still haven’t been reunited with their loved ones. Caitlin Dickerson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has written the definitive reported account out this week of how zero tolerance came to wrench thousands of children away from their parents in what, I feel is, a deeply inhumane attempt to slow down immigration to the U.S.

I sat down with her to talk about how something so horrific could happen. There are a lot of things that have shattered my spirit, especially since becoming a new mom, Buffalo and Uvalde in particular,  and then I read your story and found myself so distraught at what this country is capable of doing, I mean, this is incredibly reported. It is thoughtfully written and it is so terribly devastating. 

Caitlin: It’s a really, really painful story to sit with and to be honest with you, I sort of feel like I haven’t stopped thinking about family separation since 2017, since it started, I felt like I had to do everything that I could to get to the bottom of it.

You know, this is why I became a journalist, to hold our government accountable, you know, regardless of who’s in office and to make sure that we all have the facts we need to fully engage in our democracy. And this was a story that stood out for a lot of reasons, but one of them was just we weren’t getting good information.

You know, I wasn’t used to being told things that were completely untrue by government officials. Normally you get a ‘no comment’, you know, change the subject. You don’t get an outright falsehood. So, just really felt like I had to stick with it and learn as much as I could. 

Brittany: I’m so grateful that you did.

I know many, many people are in the general public, families who are afflicted by this. I mean, this is the work of journalism, right? It is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable and really you’ve published what a lot of folks are calling the definitive story on family separation, The Atlantic dedicated over 40-print pages to this critical story. That’s how important it is.

And you spent a year and a half on it. So for people who haven’t read it yet, or who like me have read a piece of it and then had to put it down and will revisit it when they’ve got the emotional strength. Can you tell us just briefly what you found?

Caitlin: Sure, and I should just start by saying,  I’m really grateful for the positive feedback and grateful that people are reading my story, but I think that, you know, the definitive stories of family separations are those of the families who are impacted by this.  

Brittany: That’s right.

Caitlin: And they’re going to continue telling their stories.

You know, kids who experience this are getting older and they’re feeling ready in some cases to tell their stories. There are a couple of academics who are working really hard to collect their oral histories and let them tell their own story. But in the meantime, you know, we do what we can as reporters to fill in the gaps, you know, where to begin, right.

I mean, it was really easy at the height of zero tolerance and family separations to just quickly jump to this idea that, you know, this was some idea that Stephen Miller came up with, you know, with the support of Donald Trump and, you know, the administration was chaos and that was it. But I knew that wasn’t true.

I mean, I’d covered DHS for years. I know that the federal government is huge and slow moving and requires a lot of people and a lot of support to do something like this. I mean, there were thousands of families physically removed, you know, physically separated from each other sent then onto other federal agencies who had to take them in. How does this happen?

And I learned a lot about the bureaucracy, you know, it’s something that doesn’t have the best reputation. Our federal bureaucracy, people think of it as boring and slow moving. And you know, all those things may be true, but includes these very specific systems that are in place to make sure, you know, knowledgeable people get a chance to weigh in on policies, you know, just because a political appointee wants to put something into place doesn’t mean it’s feasible. Doesn’t mean it’s ethical. Doesn’t mean it’s legal. 

And in this case, all of those systems were disempowered, were sidelined, or were just completely ignore. 

Brittany: So I think one of the really important facets of what you have done is put a human face on this conversation about family separation.

Tell us a little bit about a family that really made an impression on you. Why were they traveling to the United States and, and what happened when they got here? 

Caitlin: Well, I can tell you about Nosario Jacinto Cario, he’s one of the first separated parents. I remember interviewing back in 2018 and he’s from Guatemala.

He’s very poor. He comes from a family of corn farmers. He has no education and he wasn’t making almost any money. You know, his family was very hungry. Danger was also part of their day to day life. Cartel violence is prominent in the area where they live. But if you asked him, you know, the primary reason why he decided to bring his, at the time, five-year-old daughter, Filomina with him to the United States, it’s because they just didn’t have enough food to eat.

And so, you know, they traveled to the border with money that was loaned to them, having no idea that zero tolerance had just been implemented right before they arrived. And they were separated. He’s one of over a thousand parents who was deported without his daughter. And he had this experience, which was quite common where he was told if he agreed to his own deportation, you know, signing a document that he couldn’t read, even if it had been written in Spanish, he wouldn’t have been able to read it, but it was in English in his case. 

He was told he’d get his daughter back in two weeks. And so when we first got on the phone together, several weeks had passed. She still wasn’t home. Nosario was very confused, you know, about who I was, about lawyers who were trying to help him were, you know, who worked for the government, who didn’t.

I remember him telling me, you know, I said like, where are you getting your news? Where are you getting updates? And he’s like, I don’t even have a radio, you know, all I’m getting are phone calls that come in very irregularly when I have enough money to pay for a call on my cell phone. 

You know, it’s at the height of zero tolerance, everybody in the country is paying attention. Us reporters are just trying to do our best to fill people in most importantly, the parents themselves. And what I remembered about our interview was that I kept trying to ask him about Filomina. Tell me about her. What is she like? What does she like to play with?

You know, what’s her favorite color? And he just could not answer any of my questions, you know, he’d hear me out and he would start to, and then he would interrupt and say, but do you, when do you think she’s gonna get back? And how many days do you think it might be before she gets home? And he said, you know, why has the U.S. government kidnapped these children? What does it want with them? What is it doing with these children? 

That interview really struck me then. And it’s still with me, which is why he’s in my story today. I mean, he was completely speechless when I called him when I got started on this most recent piece and let him know there were still families that hadn’t been reunified.

And, you know, I tell this story in the piece of asking him more recently, you know, does Filomina still look back on her experience in the United States and he just put her on the phone. I didn’t wanna dive right in, you know, she’s, she’s so young, she’s nine years-old now. And so I didn’t even, you know, spit out a question in time for her to just kind of start to try to respond.

You know, she knew what I’d asked her dad and trying to eek out a couple of words and then Nosario gets up back on the phone and he just says, I’m so sorry, she’s crying. Like just hearing her father talk with me about this experience had her in tears. 

Brittany: I keep finding myself picturing the children and the parents that you write about. So Filomina is kept in the U.S. while her father is sent home. And this is reminiscent of so many of these stories now that are happening. It’s also reminiscent of stories of the Holocaust, right? And U.S. enslavement. You talk about children literally being ripped out of their parents arms. I really just wanna make sure people get this. 

Can you put us back in one of those moments when a separation is actually happening in a detention center? Cuz I don’t want people to miss this. 

Caitlin: Sure, so it was actually really hard to figure out what the separations themselves looked like. Parents would describe them, but you couldn’t get a government official to go on the record.

And I tried, you know, to get dozens of border patrol agents to talk to me for this story. And, you know, they would cancel at the last minute, they would change their minds. Finally, I spoke to this woman, Naris Gonzalez. She was a Salvadoran consular worker who was based in a CBP processing center in south Texas during zero tolerance.

And she watched literally hundreds of separations take place and she was brave enough to come forward and tell her story for this piece. She said it was like a war. She said it was complete chaos. What happened was parents and children would be apprehended at the border. And once a critical mass of them were collected by border patrol agents, they would bring these families in buses to the facility where Naris worked.

The families would walk off of the bus and really at the same time, you know, agents would approach the parents and start to take the children away saying almost nothing. If anything, they said, you know, we’re under orders from President Trump. We have to take your kids away. And very quickly, of course, these scenes began to escalate and, you know, there was screaming, there was crying to the point that several times border patrol agents asked Naris who’s, you know, a native Spanish speaker, she’s Salvadorian, for help. They asked her to intervene because they could tell that parents were gonna get violent and were gonna fight back to keep their children with them. And Naris, she saw kids getting hurt.

I mean, because there’s literally when an agent is pulling one arm and the parent is pulling the other arm and once parents had left, she said, you know, these just absolutely cuddling, screams, still haunt her today. She spent a lot of her days inside the cells where kids were held together. And, you know, just knowing that she was, from, you know, the part of the world where they came from, that she wasn’t a U.S. government official, kids really physically clung to her and would cry and scream even harder when she had to leave at the end of the day.

So she still really struggles with what she saw and, you know, as a reporter, I’m just grateful that she came forward. Her story aligns with what we’ve been hearing from parents for years, but it’s helpful and meaningful to have it, you know, from a government official as well. 

Brittany: And so this story is being repeated.

Hundreds thousands of times along the border. How many children were separated from their parents that we know of?

Caitlin: More than 5,000 children were separated from their parents under the Trump Administration. And you know, there’s a debate statistically between the ACLU and government over exactly how many remained separated today.

But it’s likely between 700 to a thousand. 

Brittany: My God.

Caitlin: There are at this point 168 children whose parents have not been found at all. We don’t know where they are. Those who have been located, for the most part, have an opportunity to apply to re-enter the United States if they were deported and gain three years of legal status, it’s a difficult process.

But there are resources out there to help these parents, but it’s kind of important to understand that, you know, so much time has passed, those families that remain separated are in very complicated situations. You know, you have, for example, I’ve heard about, you know, a parent who’s, their sibling was killed in their home country.

And so now they’ve become the caretaker for a niece or a nephew and, you know, that child isn’t eligible to enter the United States. And so you have a parent who doesn’t know, should I go to the United States to get my child back? What do I do about my niece or nephew who I’m the caretaker for now, or, you know, parents who’ve had another child while they were deported, you know, is that child eligible?

So it obviously goes much deeper, right? The harm from separating families. But at a very basic level, when you have parents and kids who’ve been separated for years, It’s very complicated to try to come back together, you know, under these specific and narrow avenues that have been made available.

Brittany: So you’ve got the policy of family separation itself, which is clearly cruel and evil. And then the actual implementation of it lacked infrastructure planning. The way it played out on the ground was a disaster. Reading your piece, I’m gonna say a thing I know you can’t say cuz I, I will say it. I was especially angered by like the amount and the vast network of ancient people it took to make this happen. 

But one of the shocking things I realized reading your piece was that so much of how poorly it played out on the ground was completely anticipated. And that contradicts what we were so often told, right? That this was just a policy that would unexpectedly awry.

And no one knew that it was going to go this poorly, but you found people within the Trump Administration predicted literally all of the additionally terrible things that wound up happening to families. And yet the administration continued to move forward with the policy anyway. What were some of those outcomes that were predicted, but never mitigated?

Caitlin: You’re right. So when I started out reporting this story, I kept hearing over and over again, as you said. You know, we had no idea that parents or children would get lost. We had no idea that four years later, some families would still be separated. And that wasn’t true and and documents very clearly show otherwise. But sort of at the top, I just wanna point out that these outcomes also weren’t rocket science. 

They were documented very clearly and explicitly in government reports, but you can call up any prosecutor in the country and say, Hey, I’m thinking about imposing a program that’s going to jail thousands of parents who are traveling with very young children outside of their own communities where they’re not gonna have family members who can take those kids in, you know, what do you think? Can courtrooms across the country handle that if we start say tomorrow? 

No, there’s, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that such a program would be implemented smoothly. And that’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s familiar at a baseline with how this system works. But beyond that, I found reports from within DHS. as well as within DOJ once parts of DOJ, like the U.S. Marshals discovered this was coming as well as within HHS, which cared for the kids. You know, very explicitly documenting what could go wrong. 

One report that stood out in particular came from the civil rights division of DHS. It literally warns of quote future populations of U.S. orphans. It warns of infants being separated.

It warns of children or parents being deported, you know, without their relatives. All of which took place and these reports really weren’t taken seriously. And then you have, you know, as I said, HHS took care of the kids, that agency wasn’t warned in advance that zero tolerance was coming, even though members of their bureaucracy, you know, Jonathan White, one of the more prominent among them had made clear, separated children tend to be very young.

You know, they’re gonna be very traumatized. Again, all these things are sort of common sense, but it says something that you had government officials pointing them out in advance and still their warnings were not addressed. 

Brittany: I mean, let’s talk about some of these government officials, right? Because you talk about this division between so-called immigration hawks and the Trump Administration and then these careerists, and those two groups in some ways had conflicting approaches.

Terrifyingly, you write that there were a lot of people who didn’t necessarily approve of the policy, but just figured somebody else, somewhere in another department in another bureau in another agency would fix it. That’s really haunting because it kinda shows how horrific things end up happening, partially because people just stand oddly by.  What do you learn about that phenomenon?

Caitlin: I think I learned that there was a really significant amount of naivete among people, you know, moderate Republicans, who a lot of them didn’t vote for Trump and took these positions in the administration with ideas that, you know, we were very idealistic and didn’t find ways to speak up or to push back, when now they say they wish they had. 

So when you take a job in an administration like the Trump Administration, you know, walking in the door, you know, you’re going to have a Stephen Miller pushing for really harsh enforcement policies. Some of which may not, you know, be ethical, some of which may not be feasible.

Some of which may not even be legal. I mean, a lot of the administration’s policies ended up in court. And so knowing that’s gonna be the case, the bureaucracy, if you will, it becomes even more important to point out these failures or these, you know, potential pitfalls of such policies. But instead what people said to me, you know, sort of unaware, I think of how it sounded is that, you know, well, I couldn’t speak up in this meeting.

It was a speak-when-spoken-to environment, you know, wouldn’t have been strategic to push back against Stephen Miller. He was so close to the president. So what I had to do was after I left a meeting, go into my office and vent to, you know, my friend who worked in the Bush Administration with me. And I would sort of say to them, like, do you think that was effective in pushing back against these policies?

I mean, many people pointed out to me that, you know, they would hear Stephen Miller and another, you know, very influential hawkish member of the administration who people don’t know as much, but Gene Hamilton really pushed this policy forward very aggressively. They made it clear when they would propose ideas that they didn’t know a lot about immigration enforcement.

They didn’t understand, you know, the basics. And so again, the bureaucracy becomes that much more important to say, hey, this actually isn’t gonna work and people just stayed quiet. 

Brittany: The irony is not lost on me that when some of these folks were talking to you, they were caring for greeting or even saying goodbye for the day in the background to their own children.

Why was the family’s separation strategy such a departure from previous enforcement efforts at the border? I think because we know that this is extreme we don’t necessarily understand what the shift was. 

Caitlin: So, family separations were the culmination of this strategy of prevention by deterrence that comes out of the 911 era.

And that uses mainly prosecution, criminal prosecution as a way to discourage illegal border crossing. And so that started, you know, in the post 911 era with migrant workers who are coming to the United States, often single men to do some work and either send money home or go back home and use it to support their families.

And we started putting them in jail a couple days at a time, you get a misdemeanor conviction. The idea is just to kind of over time, lower the number of people who decide to cross the border illegally. And there are all kinds of issues that come up right away with this approach that I try to detail in the piece.

And even though, you know, if its efficacy, as well as its ethics are being questioned, it becomes more and more popular until a government official Tom Homan actually working under President Obama has the idea of imposing this same consequence against families, which will trigger an automatic family separation.

I mean, it comes out of this real panic within the national immigration enforcement infrastructure over increasing border crossings and Congress doing nothing about it, you know, who are effectively our immigration cops, right? To determine policy and what tool do they have to use? They have prosecution, they have punishment.

And so that’s what they use even though the group we’re talking about now is predominantly asylum seekers. And, you know, I think to answer your question, it felt like such a departure because children, you know, very, very young children among them were directly impacted by this. You know, of course we have family detention in the United States.

We have programs that, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time in asylum camps in northern Mexico where people live with their children outside in filth. I mean, as trying to get into the United States, these are not good conditions, but to actually take children away is just on a whole nother level. And it was really, came up all the time in my reporting.

You know, we started our conversation today with you talking about becoming a new mother. I mean, people’s kids come up all the time because people’s kids are the center of their world. And so to take children away was just beyond anything that we’ve ever. I shouldn’t say that we’ve ever done, but beyond anything in modern immigration enforcement that’s been done.

Brittany: I mean, you talk about Tom Homan, who you dubbed the intellectual father of this idea of separating migrant families as a deterrent. And it was so interesting to me to read your conversation with him because he talks about the moment he dedicated himself to, I guess what he believed was his purposeful work.

He talks about seeing a father and his five-year-old son who died of heat exhaustion coming over the border in the back of a trailer tractor. And he sees the five year-old dead and blames the father for his death. I’m curious, did Tom or anyone that you spoke to who perpetuated this policy, did any of them stop to consider what desperate circumstances might exist for a father in the dead of night to take that kind of risk with their son? Did that never actually occur to anybody? 

Caitlin: I think that Tom Homan is a really good example of what happens when you allow somebody who from his early twenties has been an enforcement officer along the border to try to come up with a solution that requires humanitarian policy, that requires economic policy, that requires international relations. 

I mean, this is not an easy challenge to try to confront and what we’ve done as a country by not addressing it at the legislative level is left it to people like Tom Homan who became a border patrol officer in his early twenties to figure this problem out.

And so, as I said before, I mean that’s the solution that he comes up with is that we’ve gotta punish them. But because that’s what he has available to him. I do think that Tom Homan has at times acknowledged and considered the circumstances that cause people to leave their home countries. I think there’s also a lot of demonization and a lot of building up of the conversation around, you know, the smuggling organizations that transport people to the United States, that places a lot of the blame for what happens to families on them.

And horrific tragedies like the one that he saw, they play out every day and, and it is smugglers who are at fault, of course, for leaving people in the back of a tractor trailer. But there’s so much focus on the smuggling organizations that it seems to take away when you talk to people like Tom Homan and others in the enforcement apparatus from, you know, their acknowledgement of the circumstances that you’re describing. 

It’s really hard for them to hold that balance, it feels like, in their minds. And Tom Homan is also somebody who appears on Fox News very frequently. I mean, he’s somebody who has views that are based on a career in law enforcement, but also, you know, very clearly a talking head and also clearly somebody who’s become very political over the years.

And so there’s a lot going on in that conversation. He tells that story because he knows it’s powerful. 

Brittany: So we’re talking a lot about the people, because there was folks who made choices to speak up, to not speak up, to pursue things, to ignore things that led us to this spot. And you reveal that people in the Trump Administration deliberately misled Congress, misled the press.

They certainly misled the public. Is there a way now do you believe to hold these folks accountable at all? 

Caitlin: So when I put that question to our current DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, he said it was up to DOJ to hold the government officials responsible for zero tolerance accountable, but DOJ under Biden has been defending zero tolerance and the separation of families in court cases brought by families who are suing over what they experienced. 

You know, I’ve done some digging into that and the basic premise behind it seems to be that, you know, a lawyer has an ethical responsibility to represent their client as vigorously and thoroughly as possible.

And so these DOJ attorneys are representing the government. And so what are they doing? They’re defending the government. And I just explain that because I know a lot of people are really confused by the position that DOJ has taken here, but it really does leave almost nobody to take up a cause of holding officials accountable.

Brittany: So you’ve been tracking family separation as we talk about for a long time now. I’m curious how separation affects kids and families over the long term. What are you seeing in the families that you’ve been following consistently? Cuz this is not trauma that goes away, despite what some of these administration officials may think. 

Caitlin: These families are really struggling. And that includes parents and children who are only separated, you know, I say only, um, because by comparison, it’s a short period of time, you know, for a month or two.

And I’ve also spent time with parents and children who spent years apart, both parents and children I’ve heard say, you know, this isn’t the child I remember, or this isn’t the mother that I remember. A lot of kids are struggling with this idea that they feel like they were abandoned. They feel like their parents gave them up, or somehow intentionally brought this on.

And it’s something that psychologists were not surprised to see. It’s very disruptive to a child’s ability to develop healthy attachments at that young age to go through something like that and to see their parent in a moment of such powerlessness where they’re physically trying to pull them away and basically lose that fight.

So kids have regressed behaviorally and intellectually in a lot of ways. And in a lot of cases, you’ll see things like bedwetting, you know, just really paranoia and insularity, not wanting to leave the house. A lot of kids lost their speech during zero tolerance and are still coming back cognitively from that.

And parents are severely depressed, too. And you know what I hear often from the mental health professionals who are treating them is that the parents are so focused on their kids, that they’re actually not dealing with their own trauma, even though many of them are experiencing night terrors that same, you know, paranoia and insularity and just fear.  Some of it fear that’s founded and based on real risk, but there’s just this baseline sense that everything could fall apart, that you know, their child could be taken away again at any moment. And it hangs over them all the time. So, you know, it’s been very, very severe in terms of its impacts. 

Brittany: This is going to require correction over a long period of time. Are there particular lessons you really hope the Biden Administration learns from your reporting?

Caitlin: I hope what readers, including those in the Biden Administration take away from the reporting is that our immigration system is not working and going back to the same old tools is clearly not overall impacting border crossings. Number one, which is, which is the goal, you know, of any administration that doesn’t wanna look as if it’s, you know, got a chaotic situation at the border.

There’s always a great deal of fear about that, regardless of whether you’re talking about a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. But also I think there’s a lesson, you know, Frankly for all of us in watching the ways in which people who actually were very empowered didn’t speak up, you know, I heard cabinet secretaries would say to me, well, there was nothing that I could do.

You know, I was under so much pressure. That’s the job of the cabinet secretary, you know, that’s a job that comes with a lot of pressure.  And so our own agency that exists regardless of what our role is, but in particular, if you’re in these very high roles that have very real power you can use it

You know, you don’t have to cow to what somebody is screaming at you and telling you to do.

Brittany: Absolutely. Caitlin, thank you so, so much for your tireless commitment to telling this story and to making sure that families are truly heard from, like you said, I hope that we continue to hear more from them and that we don’t turn away when it becomes difficult.

Thank you for having this conversation with us. We really appreciate it. 

Caitlin: Thank you so much for having me.

Brittany: Caitlin Dickerson covers immigration at The Atlantic where she’s a staff writer, she’s previously reported for The New York Times and NPR. Moments like these make me ask myself, did America ever want the world’s tired, poor, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Because judging by our government’s behavior, the answer is a resounding indignant, intentionally cruel ‘no’. America won’t just reject you and your hopes, it will make sure the rejection is as painful as humanly possible.

In my faith and many others, there is certainly justice coming for those folks with these kinds of evil proclivities. Karma is a bitch ain’t scripture, but it might as well be. And politically we are going to have to collectively decide to be those bitches named karma because we should each be burning inside that this has happened in our name, whether at the border, a prison cell or a foreign military base.

These people can never, and I absolutely do mean never, be allowed to be at the helm of decision making again. The Biden Administration must continue to decry this policy and use its power to hold all those involved accountable to the bitter end. DAs and states attorneys general that have the power to prosecute Trump Administration officials better be sure they make it stick.

FBI, I never been a fan of y’alls, but if you gonna do one thing right, make sure it’s this. And we, the voters, who hold the most important political office, the office of citizen, we have to make sure that those folks never see the inside of a government building again. Because don’t be confused, Trump was the symptom.

There’s a deeper virus and people like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, they are excited to come and fill his slide. So we can’t leave any power on the table, especially not now.

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. Especially not in midterm season.  UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 


Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.

And our associate producers are Alexis Moore and Marialexa Kavenaugh.

Thanks always to Treasure Brooks and Hannis Brown.

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor.

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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.