Unpacking an incisive work of journalism, on family separation.
LAST SUNDAY MORNING, THE world woke up to an era-defining investigation into the U.S. government’s policy of ripping migrant children from their families as they crossed into this country—a practice that, all told, stole 5,569 children from their parents. Almost two 9/11s, more than three Katrinas, thousands above the number of Japanese people this country kidnapped from Latin America during World War II, and yet an American tragedy without past referent.
This is why Caitlin Dickerson’s new cover story in The Atlantic, at 30,000 words long, is less an investigation, more a history.
For years, I had been waiting for a work of reporting like this one. That summer of 2018, I was working as an intern at The Hill, trying to find my footing in journalism while also finding myself unable to avoid the news of family separation. I tried not to lose my mind at the apathy of so many in the media who conceived of the rapidly multiplying harm as just another ill-fated, unavoidable consequence of our antiquated immigration system. We had laudable investigative reporting from outlets like The Texas Tribune, ProPublica, and The Arizona Republic, but until Sunday, I don’t think we had yet seen such a total examination of family separation.
More importantly, though, an American legacy magazine hadn’t yet run a piece of this caliber. In the news industry, you can tell a lot about an outlet’s editorial priorities by the kind of articles to which the most resources are allocated: attention, careful copyediting, fact-checking, graphic design, among others. Although in a sense it is true that a work of journalism must be good and ambitious and incisive before a magazine chooses to put its weight behind it, it is also true that editors accept the pitches and assign the articles that most appeal to their sensibilities (which includes their political views). When The Atlantic published Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” it set a precedent: a Black writer could write about reparations and his story would not be sidelined as “Black reporting.” Furthermore, it demonstrated to younger Black writers (and other writers of color) that the stories they grew up hearing could change culture. (Subsequent cover stories in that same magazine were less—ahem—on target.)
Dickerson’ story has a similar effect on me. Finally, the stories that immigrants have been talking about among themselves, the pain that had been heretofore subsumed to hushed WhatsApp conversations among relatives, is front and center. I’m not an immigration reporter, but as an undocumented immigrant, I can tell what is good immigration reporting. Dickerson’s investigation is among the best pieces I’ve read since I started consuming English-language journalism.
In case you haven’t read it yet, I’ll bullet some of the top-line findings from the piece:
The United States did not bumble towards this policy. Instead, it took intentional, concerted effort to create it and sustain it.
It wasn’t just a few well-known names like Stephen Miller and Kevin McAleenan that supported this policy. It was bureaucrats up and down the chain of command—people who retreated in American suburbs to tranquil lives with families and children of their own.
Even the “careerist” policy wonks buckled in favor of the policy under pressure from more ideological, hardened right-wingers.
To wit: former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen regrets approving the policy. But she clarified, helpfully, that she won’t apologize for enforcing the policy, of course, understandably.
The children have not recovered from the emotional trauma, and despite the efforts of the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force, 700 families still remain severed.
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The work that went into this piece is simply impressive: 18 months of reporting, 150+ interviews, and even a lawsuit to force the government to turn over documents. What I think Dickerson achieves successfully in this piece—and sets her apart from much of her immigration journalist peers—is that she found a way to showcase the depth of her political reporting without sacrificing her reporting on the psychological impact that the policy had on children an their families. One passage that continues to haunt me:
In February 2018, [the ACLU’s Lee] Gelernt met a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had been separated from her 6-year-old daughter. The girl had spent several months in an HHS shelter in Chicago; her mother was being held in an immigration detention center in the desert on the outskirts of San Diego. When she walked into a cinder-block room to meet Gelernt, she appeared gaunt and confused—“almost catatonic from what had happened to her,” Gelernt told me. The woman explained that when she and her daughter had crossed the border, agents had taken them to a motel for questioning—a common practice when border facilities run out of space and put them in adjacent rooms. Because the mother and daughter, who became known in court as Ms. L and S.S., respectively, had been living in South America before requesting asylum in the United States, S.S. had picked up Spanish. When the agents began to discuss separating the girl from her mother, perhaps thinking that they were being discreet by speaking in Spanish, Ms. L heard her daughter’s screams through the wall between them.
I took too many screenshots of noteworthy passages like this one while reading it on my phone, hoping to tweet out some of them, but then eventually chose to write this post about the whole piece. I found myself unable to reduce the toll of this policy to 280 characters, competing for retweets and likes that flatten the nuance that this piece, and these immigrants, deserve.
Crucially, Dickerson also rejects an impulse among some political reporters to fixate on any one Villain™ and feed off them for the rest of the story, weaving instead through policy processes, law, and ideology to demonstrate the systemic character of family separation. Instead of falling captive to outmoded both-side-isms, Dickerson structured her narrative by dividing the bureaucrats into two camps, Careerists and Hawks, while also making it clear both camps belonged to the same side and no camp was less culpable than the other. Although politics were an important part of the story—at one point, Donald Trump considers whether keeping or ending family separation would help him win a second term—they were not completely divorced from the harm. She continues:
In federal court cases, several parents whose children were taken away allege being taunted by agents who said “Happy Mother’s Day!” And parents say they were told that their children would be put up for adoption or that they would never see them again. Others recount being threatened or ignored when they asked where their children were. Perhaps to avoid physical altercations, some agents began deceiving families in order to lure them apart, or pulling children out of holding cells while they and their parents were asleep. Bash reported to DOJ headquarters that two plaintiffs in his district said they had been told their children were being taken to have baths and then never saw them again.
There’s other additional visual aspects of this work that make it easier for our starved attention spans to continue reading—details that you wouldn’t typically notice, but prove immensely helpful. For instance, the story is laid out chronologically, and includes a timeline, which reduces the gaps in the narrative. A ticker follows the reader’s eye throughout the story, counting the number of children separated and matching them up to the actions of officials described in the story: Before the state even admitted it was separating families, more than 1,000 children had been taken from their parents. A “Key Players” tab provides the haunting dramatis personae to this story.
And one more thing.
At the very top of the story, after the first paragraph, is what I believe to be one of the most essential markers of ethical immigration reporting: A link that reads “Leer este artículo en español.” I have said for years that media outlets that write about people who don’t speak English should strive to translate those articles into the predominant languages of those communities, because sources must be able to hold reporters accountable too. How can they do that if they don’t understand what’s being written about them? In 2018, while writing a longform article on the migrant caravan, I convinced Politico Magazine to publish its first Spanish-language translation. We paid a Tijuanan journalist to translate the piece, and I edited the work in between college finals, because no one at the magazine spoke Spanish well enough to edit such a work. In 2020, we published the second. To neglect this translation work is to advance an extractive journalism that feels entitled to take, take, take the stories of our families, our cultures, and our countries.
I’ll wrap up this post by leaving you with the rich, rich irony at the end of Dickerson’s piece:
If anyone is likely to lead another push for the American government to separate families, it’s Stephen Miller. For a year and a half, I tried to reach him so that I could ask him directly, among other things, why he had lobbied so forcefully for this to occur in the first place, and whether he would do so again in the future. A close friend of Miller and his wife explained that ever since the couple became parents, they had been consumed by child care and were hard to reach.
As my deadline approached, Miller repeatedly ducked or delayed speaking with me. Once, when I got Miller on the phone, he quickly told me that he had to go, and hung up. He soon sent a follow-up text to explain why he had been so abrupt. “With the extended family.” he said. “And our little one.”
I think this is a master class in reporting we’ll return to constantly—within and outside of classrooms—for years to come.
I think we must.
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Read Caitlin Dickerson’s piece, “An American Catastrophe,” in The Atlantic.
Two other essays I really enjoyed this week: Tanvi Misra on why couples send softcore porn to U.S. Immigration Services and a spellbinding profile of Clarence Thomas (whose subscription to this newsletter may now be deactivated because he resigned from his teaching job at George Washington University—we’ll miss him).
And as a bonus, here’s a nugget of a story I broke in summer 2018, at the height of family separations:
Thank you for pointing us to this piece of investigative journalism--and for insisting we read it with the respect the issue demands
Thanks for this, Jesus.