Inside a Reporters Notebook at the US-Mexico Border
Jacob Soboroff on Writing About Family Separation
I have an admission to make: I’m not the most organized guy in the world, which, it turns out, was not particularly helpful when I started writing Separated: Inside an American Tragedy. The thing is, I knew exactly where to begin. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to.
I’m a correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, and more often than not I’m working on feature stories in which I go somewhere, talk to someone and experience something to try and explain to our viewers why what they’re seeing is happening. In the book, I write about some of those stories: watching the Catholic Church train undocumented parishioners how not to get deported; seeing President Trump’s borders wall prototypes up close; trudging through the wet mud of a subterranean smuggling tunnel seventy feet under the border. But all of that happens on camera, in real time, and I almost never, ever take notes. It’s all being recorded, and ultimately transcribed, so why would I?
That strategy didn’t work out so well when on June 13, 2018, I found myself in a far different situation: becoming an unlikely eyewitness to one of the most shameful chapters in modern American history. The Trump administration’s deliberate and systematic separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents was, according to humanitarian groups and child welfare experts, an unparalleled abuse of the human rights of children. The American Academy of Pediatrics says the practice will leave thousands of kids traumatized for life. I was there to see it myself, though I didn’t expect to be and, as a journalist, almost missed the story entirely. What I saw now is forever seared into my memory. And unusually, for me, I also wrote it down.
Though the Trump administration had been carrying out widespread family separations at the border for more than a year, the horror separated families endured set in for me personally on the thirteenth day of June 2018. I could feel the thickness of the air as soon as I walked off our United Airlines flight at the tiny Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport in South Texas, the early summer steam of the Rio Grande Valley sneaking in between the weak seal connecting the jet bridge and the plane. The gray marine layer that draped my hometown of Los Angeles when I took off no longer seemed worth complaining about as sweat started dripping down my back.
As producer Aarne Heikkila and I headed up the ramp, I pulled off the sweatshirt I flew in, my T-shirt now sticking to my skin even as we made our way through the air-conditioned terminal toting our carry-ons. I’m probably going to get sick, I thought to myself. We headed past the baggage claim, out the doors, under a row of palm trees, and across a small parking lot to pick up our rented minivan.
We had rushed to Brownsville, not far from where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico, after being invited by a Trump administration official to tour what is known as Casa Padre with several other journalists. Its name reflected the street it was on, meant to honor the Spanish priest who, in 1804, established the first permanent settlement on the southern tip of a nearby island. Literally translated, it means Father’s House. We’d soon learn how regrettably misnamed the facility was.“This place is called a shelter, but effectively these kids are incarcerated.”
The 250,000-square-foot former Walmart—what we were told was a “shelter”—was holding nearly fifteen hundred migrant boys, ten to seventeen years old, hundreds of whom had been separated from their parents as a direct result of Donald Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy. By then the existence and execution of Trump’s family separations had been widely reported, but no journalist had seen the realities from the inside. I was anxious.
Part of the reason must have been that I was going to be out of my reportorial comfort zone. As is often the case when a government official invites you to do something, there were conditions placed on the access. In this case, we’d be allowed inside Casa Padre, but without cameras, phones or any electronic equipment. No recording.
On the four-mile drive from the airport, I asked Aarne to pull over at a Walgreens so I could run inside to buy a car charger for my laptop. I figured it was going to be a long night and we’d be waiting in the car in between live shots. I paced the aisles looking for one. No luck, but I grabbed a little blue notebook (pad-and-paper only, as had been stipulated), some dry shampoo (I’m a TV reporter with curly hair about to do a live shot in ninety-degree humidity), and a cold Gatorade (for mysterious reasons the yellow flavor calms my nerves). Aarne picked up a bag of almonds, like he always does when we’re on assignment.
We paid and were on our way. In minutes I’d bear witness to the reality that our country, under the direction of President Donald Trump, was ripping parents and children apart. Casa Padre would become the scene of international breaking news later that night.
It has now been nearly two years since I walked into Casa Padre with that Walgreens notebook. After its pages were filled with four different stories, it lived on my desk at home for months, a reminder of the tragedy it had helped me document. In late 2018, as my wife, son, and I were moving out of our rental and into our first home, I put the “memo book,” as it says on the front in big bold type, in a bag with other valuable possessions and brought it to a storage locker.
A year later, as I began writing a book, I knew I needed to find it. But I wasn’t sure where it was. Or if I might have tossed it. Or if a rat ate it at the storage place. This is where not being organized went from being just a thing to a thing that could make starting to write a book very problematic.I barely needed to read a word to bring back the sights and sounds and feelings of being there.
I went and dug the bag out from under boxes of Christmas decorations. With my iPhone flashlight I found the notebook, thankfully, at the bottom of the bag. Holding it in my hand for the first time in months made my heart race. The reporting inside, by President Trump’s own admission, contributed to his ending systematic family separations. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated,” the president said while signing the executive order that stopped the policy he had claimed days earlier did not exist.
The notebook burned in my hand. Inside the five-by-ten-foot storage unit, surrounded by camping equipment and a baby-changing table and a pendant lamp that was gathering dust, I sat on a stool and flipped open its tiny cover to the first page of spiral-bound lined paper. If someone else found these fifty pages of chicken scratch they’d have no idea what they were looking at. I barely needed to read a word to bring back the sights and sounds and feelings of being there.
As of Friday June 8—11,214 migrants in UAC [Unaccompanied Alien Children] program—avg length 56 days
Translation: the U.S. government was overwhelmed by an influx of kids—many of whom couldn’t be released because their parents could not be found. I kept going, stopping again on the sixth page.
smile at them—they “feel like animals in a cage being looked at”
I recognized those details as among the first I revealed when I walked outside Casa Padre to a TV camera and told my MSNBC colleague, anchor Chris Hayes, and the world what I saw inside.
“This place is called a shelter, but effectively these kids are incarcerated.”
A monitor was set up to the side of the camera, and I could see the breaking news banner at the bottom of the screen. It read nbc news tours immigrant child detention center. The notebook now in my hands was then tucked in my pocket, during the first live national report about the conditions of separated children in government custody.
I brought it with me days later when, on Father’s Day, I toured the Ursula Border Patrol Central Processing Station, not far away in McAllen, Texas, where more children were separated from their parents than anywhere else on the border. There they shut families into what a Border Patrol agent told me were “pods,” a generous description. My notes hastily captured what I learned.
get moved even If parent
back in a day
The Trump administration was potentially “creating thousands of immigrant orphans,” as a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement put it, by deporting separated parents before they were given a chance to reunite. When I closed my notebook that day in South Texas, I walked outside and again detailed on national TV what I saw: “People in here are locked up in cages, essentially what look like animal kennels. I don’t know any other way to describe it.”
I still don’t. I can’t recall why, but I left a few pages in the middle of the notebook blank until I took notes during my first phone call with Lindsay Toczylowski, the lawyer who represented a separated three-year-old who, she said, “started climbing up on the table” in court. On that call, she clued me in to the Trump administration’s lack of a plan to reunite families.
Everyone has been told nothing about next steps
Toczylowski later introduced me to one of the parents she was describing at the time, who alleged he was coerced into signing away the right to reunify with his son. Their story appears throughout the book. But the first time I heard about it, I wrote it in my Walgreens notebook.
The final pages in it became home to what I saw and learned inside the San Diego courtroom where a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite separated families. That case, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is still ongoing today. At the time, Sarah Fabian, the government lawyer who later became famous for arguing migrant kids don’t need blankets or toothbrushes, called in to the hearing and was asked to provide a number of separated family members facing deportation.
Fabian! Latest #’s Executable 1,000!
Two exclamation points. At the time it all felt noteworthy. I did not plan or expect to be there, at the heart of it all, when the nation finally noticed the American government was systematically separating migrant families in unprecedented numbers
Since the summer of 2017, the Trump administration has taken at least 5,556 kids from their parents. But still today, nobody knows for sure exactly how many families have been separated. In February 2020, the United States Government Accountability Office noted, “it is unclear the extent to which Border Patrol has accurate records of separated [families] in its data system.” Scarce few of their stories have been told. Most will never be. There are families who were quickly put back together, and children who were, as predicted, permanently orphaned.
My one little blue notebook could never do all their stories justice, nor is my book an attempt to. I encourage you to seek out, read, and learn about what happened from as many sources as you can.
But I’m glad I found it. I don’t know what I would have done had I not. For me, a critical primary source, in an unfamiliar format, that became a through line of my effort to document Donald Trump’s self-inflicted American tragedy.
Adapted from Separated: Inside an American Tragedy by Jacob Soboroff. Used with the permission of Custom House. Copyright © 2020 by Jacob Soboroff.