Special to CTN
With the craziness of 2020—the coronavirus, the protests, the fires, and the upcoming election—the painful border separations of children from their parents has fallen out of the news.
However, MSNBC/NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff, who has followed the issue for the last two years, recently published an account of this policy and its human toll in his book, “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy” (HarperCollins).
Soboroff, who grew up in Pacific Palisades, was one of the first reporters to describe the living conditions of children taken into custody. His book details the misery he uncovered and the political decisions that authorized it. In addition, he shares excerpts of the official declarations of immigrants who were separated from their children.
For example, one father from Kyrgyzstan, who was seeking asylum with his 13-year-old son, wrote that when “I was told that I was going to be separated from my son, I … felt as though I was having a heart attack. I was not able to ask why … and did not know what to do. I feel like I was in shock and do not remember what happened next or even how I got to the detention center after that. All I can remember is how much my son and I were both crying as they took him away.”
His son was flown to Chicago, while the man remained in a San Diego detention center. Six months later, the man and his son were still apart and were only allowed to talk once a week for about ten minutes by phone. “It is not enough,” the man noted. “He sounds depressed, and each time I talk with him on the phone, he talks less and less. This separation is tearing me apart inside.”
While promoting the book, Soboroff was interviewed by his good friend and MSNBC news anchor Katy Tur, who was his classmate at Harvard- Westlake. He shared with her the trauma that the families endured.
“Approximately 5,400 children were taken systematically by the Trump administration in what can only be described as an unprecedented abuse of the human race of children,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, he told Tur, who also grew up in the Palisades. “Since the policy ended, … another 1,000 have been taken from their parents…. Four-hundred plus parents were deported without their children…. We don’t know how many children are ultimately still left to be reunited, and because of shoddy recordkeeping, we may never know.”
Tur mentioned the book’s tale of a Guatemalan father and son who traveled 2,000 miles to escape narco-traffickers in their community, but then spent five months separated by the United States government. The two agreed to be part of the book in hopes that they could help prevent such pain from impacting other families. However, she noted that empathy from Department of Homeland Security officials for such immigrants had been lacking. Some accuse them of making up fraudulent stories.
“It’s just not true, and the facts don’t support that allegation,” Soboroff said. “You don’t take one of the most dangerous journeys, perhaps the most dangerous journey in the world, through some of the most dangerous places in the world, in order to come here and flip a coin and fake the fact that you are coming for a better life.”
In his book, Soboroff mentions the commonalities he felt with the Guatemalan boy, José, a 12-year-old, who loved to hang out with his father, just as Soboroff had done at the same age with his dad, Steve, the real estate developer and philanthropist. However, Soboroff’s childhood proceeded on starkly different lines, which aren’t covered in the book.
Growing up in the Palisades with his dad, mom, Patti, and four siblings, he displayed an interest in journalism at an early age. For example, as a preschooler, he once used an empty cardboard box as a pretend television and stuck his head in it to make a speech like a news anchor, according to his father. After graduating from high school in 2001, Soboroff attended NYU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in political science.
He worked hard to establish a career in journalism, which included time as both the co-host on TakePart Live on Pivot TV and the host of YouTube Nation. In addition, he was a founding host and producer of HuffPost Live.
Soboroff, who is now married with two children, began working at NBC/MSNBC in 2015, and two years later, he uncovered the story of the family border separations. He was part of an initial group of 10 reporters invited to visit a child detention center in Texas, and in his book, he delineates the conditions there.
Soboroff also covers the government’s efforts to cover up the separation policy. At first, some officials insisted that separations weren’t happening and that all of the children in custody were arriving unaccompanied to the United States. Scott Lloyd, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, learned about an informal list of about 700 separated parent/child(ren) groups kept by career staffers in the department, Soboroff told Tur. In a meeting, Lloyd expressed a wish that this list disappear, but two career staffers refused to get rid of it.
“If they had followed through, the only linkage between these parents and children would have been gone,” Soboroff said. “It’s almost unbelievable to think about…. There was no plan to reunite these children.”
Tur asked how Americans could help, and Soboroff said that the main way was to make certain their voices are heard. When people vociferously protested the separation policy, President Trump ended the policy by executive order, but still there are parents and children who aren’t being released together.
In writing the book, Soboroff said his goal was to dissect how family separations could occur in our country—“how the US government could systematically torture, place under mylar blankets in cages supervised by a security contractor in a watchtower, 5,400 children and traumatize them for the rest of their lives. I wanted to answer how could this possibly have happened.”