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How the Trump White House misled the world about its family separation policy

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. "The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy" is the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic magazine. This investigative article was written by my guest, Caitlin Dickerson. The separation policy, called zero tolerance, was created during the Trump administration, mandating that parents across the southern border illegally with children be separated from their children until legal proceedings concluded and parents were either granted asylum or deported, which could take a very long time. During the Trump administration, over 5,000 children were separated from their parents with no records that would enable parents and children to be reunited. For a year and a half, Trump administration officials denied that family separation even existed. Then they said separation wasn't the goal. It was just an unfortunate result of prosecuting parents who crossed the border illegally.

But Dickerson found that separating children wasn't a side effect. She says it was the intent. She writes that instead of working to reunify families after parents were prosecuted, officials worked to keep them apart for longer. Her article, titled "We Need To Take Away Children," is based on the year-and-a-half investigation she conducted, which included more than 150 interviews and reviewing thousands of pages of internal government documents, some of which were turned over to her after a multiyear lawsuit. During the Trump administration, she reported on the story as it unfolded for The New York Times, where she covered immigration. She's now a staff writer for The Atlantic.

Caitlin Dickerson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on this remarkable investigation that you've conducted. Why did you want to continue investigating the story after Biden became president and after the Trump administration policy ended?

CAITLIN DICKERSON: Thank you so much, Terry. I wanted to keep going with this story of family separations because even at the conclusion of zero tolerance in the summer of 2018, there was just so much that reporters and that the public still didn't understand. It was confusing. We knew that thousands of families had been separated, but you had Trump administration officials, including the top immigration enforcement official, Kirstjen Nielsen, saying, you know, we don't have a family separation policy. It was really unlike a story that I'd ever covered before in that, you know, what the administration was saying didn't seem to line up with the facts. And the other reason I wanted to stay with the story is that so many parents and children remain separated. Hundreds of them to this day have not been reunited.

GROSS: When the policy of separation was announced in the spring of 2018, it had already been underway for months. Why hadn't it been announced? And why, when journalists like you asked about it after it became obvious what was happening, why was it denied?

DICKERSON: I think that the hundreds of separations that took place really in secret in 2017 were kept quiet because of the kind of unusual way in which they came about. So this idea to separate families, it was formally proposed right at the beginning of the Trump administration, but it was rejected. You might recall at the time John Kelly was the DHS secretary. He considered this idea and then said publicly that he had declined to proceed. But you still had a man named Jeff Self - he was the head of the Border Patrol in El Paso - he took it upon himself to basically pursue this idea anyway. It's one that had been floating around in the ether among border enforcement officials for many years, and many of them believed, like Self, that it was a good idea, that it was going to significantly decrease border crossings.

And so his office approached DOJ officials locally in their region, and they launched what was later described as a pilot program. At the time, it was just a local effort to minimize border crossings and begin separating families as a way to do that. So when the pilot was discovered at DHS headquarters, it seemed to directly contradict John Kelly's orders. And so it seems - that seems to be the reason why when reporters asked what was going on, we didn't get a straight answer. And in fact, we were told, you know, these separations weren't happening at all.

GROSS: The program in El Paso became a model for the national policy instituted during the Trump administration. And although there was family separation in that national policy and the administration denied that, you got access to a document that came out of this basically pilot program in El Paso, Texas. What did you learn from that report from the El Paso project that really contradicted everything that the administration was saying?

DICKERSON: I think there were two big takeaways from the report that came out of the El Paso pilot program for me that contradicted what we were hearing from Trump administration officials and what I continued to hear in my reporting. The first was this argument you referenced earlier, that separations weren't the goal of zero tolerance. You know, simply, prosecution was the goal. That's an argument that evolved over time, that you started to hear more and more as time went on and as outrage from Democrats and Republicans grew over family separations. But it wasn't being made in the earliest days of the pilot program or in the earliest days of discussing immigration enforcement in the Trump administration. And that's very clear in this report, which uses iterations of the phrase family separation more than 10 times. And it talks about the initiative very clearly as a family separation program, one that the Border Patrol locally got approval for. You know, it talks about how in the past, basically, the agency wasn't allowed to separate families, but they felt that they'd been empowered to do so, referencing various documents they felt gave them that permission. And so they went ahead with it.

And the other big contradiction I took away from that record is that, you know, in my reporting, when I would ask the officials who were responsible for and who signed off on zero tolerance, how is it that you lost track of parents and kids, how could things have gone so wrong, they said, well, we never could have anticipated all the disorganization that would follow the fact, that we wouldn't be able to keep track of relatives. And that's not true. The document states very clearly that there wasn't an adequate system in place for keeping track of parents and children. And in fact, it concludes with a single recommendation, which is that a process for doing so be developed.

GROSS: So there was chaos in El Paso after the policy was instituted. That part of the lesson was not learned by the Trump administration when this policy went national.

DICKERSON: That's right. And that document is just one example of many records I found that show people within the government, within various federal agencies, raising red flags around the idea of a nationwide family separation policy and saying, you know, we're going to lose track of parents and kids. You're going to have very young children and, in some cases, even infants separated. One report that I reviewed warned that, you know - future populations of U.S. orphans was the quote that it used. So these warnings were raised in many different places and to many different high-level officials, and they just weren't heeded.

GROSS: The point of separating families was deterrence. Like, we're going to make things so bad that no family will cross the border because it's going to be hell for them. We're going to make it that way for them. John Kelly, before he was in the Trump administration, was stationed at the border. And when Jeh Johnson was head of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, Kelly gave Jeh Johnson the advice, like, don't bother with deterrence. It's not going to work. There are so many problems that are - there's so much violence and gangs that are driving people across the border. Nothing you're going to do is going to scare them. They're going to come across. So is that one of the reasons why Kelly was determined to reject the family separation policy - because they thought deterrence is pointless?

DICKERSON: That's right. So John Kelly was our highest-ranking military official overseeing the Northern Triangle, where most migrants were traveling from to the United States, prior to joining the Trump administration. And he did feel that deterrence wasn't going to be effective because he'd become, at that point, you know, intimately familiar with the prevalence of gang violence and, really, the lack of opportunity, the lack of jobs, you know, the number of people who just didn't have enough to eat every day. As well as he talks about remittances that were sent from the United States back to Central America. All of these forces, he felt, were so strong that, you know, prosecuting people wasn't going to discourage them.

And, you know, there's a second reason that he points to for opposing family separations or separations through prosecutions when he joined the Trump administration. He does say he felt immediately that it was inhumane, that, you know, it was unnecessarily cruel, and he didn't believe in it for that reason. It's not the approach that he took in opposing it. He talked about the policy's logistical failings when he pushed back against separating families under the Trump administration. And he says that he did that because he felt it would have been more effective than making a moral argument when it came to speaking to people like Donald Trump or Stephen Miller, Trump's chief immigration adviser.

GROSS: Your article is titled "We Need To Take Away Children." That line comes from something that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a phone call to assistant DAs who were prosecuting people who had crossed illegally. Give us the context for that sentence in the Jeff Sessions phone call.

DICKERSON: So Jeff Sessions got a lot of blame during zero tolerance and even after. Again, when I'm interviewing officials who were at very high levels in DHS, for example, a lot of them basically made this argument that Sessions made me do it. And it's kind of no surprise that so much focus was put on Sessions. He'd made a career in the Senate as being someone very hawkish on immigration who believed in harsh enforcement. And I found in my reporting that to be true. But when it came to the specifics and the details of zero tolerance and the legal authorities necessary to put it into place, those actually don't trace back to Sessions.

He was someone who was embattled in the administration. You know, Donald Trump never forgave Sessions for recusing himself from the inquiry into whether there had been collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian operatives. And so Sessions was always trying to win back the president's support. And so he would generally make these pronouncements of, you know, we've got to crack down on the border. We've got to be harsh. Sessions believed in it, but he also really wanted to win Trump's affection. And so this phone call seems to be an example of that.

You know, there are several instances I document where Sessions is addressing U.S. attorneys who are saying, hey; we don't have the resources to do zero tolerance - you know, same thing that John Kelly and others argued. We don't think this is a good idea. We don't think it's going to work, and it will completely overrun our departments. And Sessions would just generally say back, we've got to do it. We've got to dig in. We've got to be harsh. And in this case, he made this comment on a phone call with each of the U.S. attorneys who are stationed on the southwestern border and said to them very clearly, we need to take away children. He felt that's what was necessary in order to discourage migration.

GROSS: How did you learn about that phone call?

DICKERSON: That phone call was actually documented by the Department of Justice's inspector general initially. And the quote comes from contemporaneous notes taken by several of the U.S. attorneys who were on the phone call with Sessions. The call itself was later recounted to me by several of those who were present who said to me, you know, we were trying to raise these specific concerns and specific red flags before the attorney general. He didn't seem to be hearing us. He just kept saying, in general, you need to be harsh. We need to double down. We need to take away children.

GROSS: So, you know, you write that family separation wasn't a side effect of prosecuting parents who crossed the border illegally. It was the intent. And, in fact, some administration officials worked to keep families separated longer. Would you explain?

DICKERSON: Yes. So yet more evidence showing that the goal for those who were pushing for zero tolerance most harshly was not just merely prosecuting parents, but also separating them from their children for significant periods of time, comes from emails that came out of one of the federal lawsuits against the government filed on behalf of separated families. In the discovery process associated with that suit, we've seen some very revealing emails. And it's actually noteworthy that, you know, I didn't get these emails in my FOIL lawsuits, that the House Judiciary Committee didn't get these emails in their inquiries. You know, they specifically point out to me - and I write this in the story - that they felt like DHS was withholding documents. And so it's worth noting that no one else had seen these emails until this discovery process began.

But they show, even before zero tolerance being implemented, one deputy at ICE - his name's Matt Albence - raising a concern that he worried if certain parents were prosecuted very quickly, that perhaps they could be returned to the border patrol stations where their children were still waiting, and that the families might be reunited. And so he started to suggest ways to prevent that from happening. He said, you know, maybe we can expedite the process through which we transfer children into HHS shelters, many of which were in other states - you know, places like Michigan and New York, far from the border. Let's send those children to the shelters more quickly to make sure they're not reunited.

He also proposed, after prosecution, sending parents to different border patrol stations if necessary or to ICE facilities if necessary - anything he could come up with to keep parents from being returned to the facilities where their children were waiting. And then later, once zero tolerance is in place, there's a series of emails that show Albence and other officials saying - you know, raising concerns about the fact that these reunifications were indeed happening in some cases. One quote from Albence - he said, "we can't have this." He talked about contacting the head of the Customs and Border Protection Agency for support and other high-level officials trying to get anybody involved that he could to try to stop these reunifications.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Caitlin Dickerson. She wrote The Atlantic magazine's new cover story, which is called "We Need To Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HEART THE TICKER SONG, "SLIGHTLY UNDER WATER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Caitlin Dickerson, who wrote The Atlantic magazine's new cover story, "We Need to Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy." The policy, called zero tolerance, was created during the Trump administration, mandating that parents who crossed the southern border illegally with children be separated from their children until legal proceedings concluded.

Let's talk about Stephen Miller. And Stephen Miller is a really hard-line, anti-immigration extremist. He was a speechwriter and an aide to President Trump and headed up efforts to crack down on immigration. And I think he really wanted to make crossing the border - you know, policies about crossing the border as draconian as possible. You say he hired people from the anti-immigrant fringes for his Washington staff. What are some of the ideas - in addition to family separation, what are some of the ideas that came out of his office?

DICKERSON: Stephen Miller came up with ideas that include Title 42, the ban imposed, actually, by the surgeon general in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Stephen Miller found that in federal statute and tried to propose that we entirely seal the border in response to much smaller and less serious public health threats - for example, outbreaks of scabies in immigration detention facilities. He proposed things like, you know, building a wall through private property and through waterways, where they could never be sustained, you know, sending National Guard troops to the border to prevent people from entering the United States at all - ideas that people who were career immigration enforcement officials said to me reflected how little he really understood about the mechanics of border enforcement, and how little he was willing to acknowledge the legal limitations that an administration faces in trying to seal the border. He was laser focused on this goal, which is not really surprising.

One of the most surprising things I did take away from learning more about Stephen Miller and his role here is that, you know, he did not have a very senior role when it came to the chain of command in this administration. He was an adviser to the president. And yet, you had him ordering around cabinet secretaries, making demands of people who were running entire agencies. And they were falling in line. And I would ask - you know, so many of them would lament, you know, Miller's just constant, you know, calling them and visiting their offices and ranting and really not letting them get a word in edgewise. They were so frustrated with his demands. And I would say, you know, did you push back? Why did you allow this to happen, you know? Did you complain to the president's chief of staff or someone higher in the chain of command, knowing that in a normal administration, an adviser to the president would never be able to get away with this kind of behavior? But Miller was so revered and almost feared because of this narrative that developed around him that he was responsible for getting Donald Trump elected president. It was his speeches about immigration that carried Trump into office. And so because of that, he was very protected. People were afraid to push back against him and let him really run over them, even though they had more authority than Miller did.

GROSS: Well, General John Kelly doesn't strike me as somebody who is fearful. How did he get around Kelly?

DICKERSON: So John Kelly was very frustrated with Stephen Miller from his earliest days in the Trump administration. And so Miller just started going around him. He would call into DHS, you know, high-ranking people, but also lower-level bureaucrats, anybody he could find who was sympathetic to his views. He would start proposing policies. And he would basically try to convince people to offer some sort of an affirmative. Yes, I think this is a good idea. Or, yes, we'll take it under consideration. And then Miller would take that back to the White House and say, DHS is on board. DHS agrees with this. Let's go ahead.

You know, John Kelly would find out about it and be incensed, not only because Miller had violated the chain of command, which Kelly, you know, as a career military officer, believes in very strongly, but also because it meant that Miller was actually using, you know, the approval or the sort of passive OK of low-level DHS officials, who had no authority to support or, you know, to turn down an idea. He was using their statements in order to go back to the White House and say, OK, we've got buy-in. We're ready to go. Let's push this forward - really violating so many structures that are designed to prevent, you know, bad policies from being put into place, policies that are not logistically feasible, that are not ethical, that are, perhaps, not even legal.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Caitlin Dickerson. And she wrote the really in-depth cover story in The Atlantic magazine, which is called "We Need To Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELIOT FISK'S "ESTRELLITA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Caitlin Dickerson, who wrote The Atlantic magazine's new cover story "We Need To Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy." This policy, called zero tolerance, was created during the Trump administration, mandating that parents who crossed the southern border illegally with their children be separated from their children until legal proceedings concluded and parents were either granted asylum or deported, a process that could take a very long time. Over 5,000 children were separated from their parents during the Trump administration. There were no records linking parents with children, so they couldn't find each other. Hundreds of children have not yet been reunited with their parents.

Caitlin, when the family separation policy was being implemented, it sounds like no one who came up with the policy was thinking ahead about, how will the parents and children be reunited? And who will be keeping track of that? And it sounds like agencies who had to handle the consequences of this policy weren't very well-informed. They weren't given much advance notice. Can you talk about some of the things that happened before implementation that made it obvious that this was going to be a disaster?

DICKERSON: So this administration stands out from any other I've looked at in depth in the way that members of the bureaucracy, subject matter experts who are responsible for the nuts and bolts of our government functioning, were left out of really critical conversations around policy. And this is one of the starkest examples of that. You know, the decision to pursue zero tolerance and separate families on a large scale was really limited to a small number of people who had shown their fealty to the administration, had shown their undying commitment to secure the border at any cost, including separating families. And anybody who raised red flags or showed concern about this idea was just left out of the conversation. Slowly, over time, rooms that included many more people where this idea was proposed - they got smaller and smaller. You know, the number of people who were allowed to weigh in - it shrunk until you only had people who favored zero tolerance and no one who had any concerns about it.

Despite that, concerns were raised among members of the bureaucracy as these early separations that occurred in the El Paso pilot program we discussed came out. And also just because rumors about the idea to separate families - those were everywhere, starting in the early months of the Trump administration based on leaks. There was always a fear at DHS and at HHS, the agency that's responsible for housing children in federal custody. There were always concerns that separating families was going to come up. And so people started to produce documents and reports pointing out all the ways in which this was not a good idea and would go wrong based on the systems that were in place at the time.

One report came out of the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. They not only warned that parents and children may be lost to one another, perhaps permanently, but they also proposed very specific systems and recommendations that could have prevented this from happening. You know, they suggested that the department come up with a database, for example, where you could search. You know, if you know who and where a child is, you could find out who and where their parent was - things like this that don't seem to have been taken into consideration meaningfully based on any record that I've seen. And, you know, that could have prevented problems.

GROSS: I was going to say a database seems like the most obvious thing to have when you're separating parents and children.

DICKERSON: It does. And it's even more obvious when you take into account that DHS has a database for adults who are detained in federal custody. It's something that I've used in my reporting since I started covering immigration. If you have a person's last name and their date of birth and their country of origin or if you have something called their alien number - you know, a federal number that's assigned to each immigrant in federal custody - you can find out where an adult is. And so why couldn't that system simply have been expanded to include children? One of the U.S. attorneys who prosecuted zero tolerance cases is quoted in the story saying, even if we didn't have an online database to keep track of parents and children, there were many other opportunities to find ways to reunite them. You know, he suggested perhaps an Excel spreadsheet. You know, he says that 5,000 is a huge number in terms of human consequences but not when it comes to data management. That's actually rather straightforward. There are many, many ways that losing track of parents and children could have been prevented, and none of them were pursued.

GROSS: You learned in the spring of 2018 that, although there was no official database that the government was keeping that would enable parents and children to find each other - that one individual in the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Jim De La Cruz, had been keeping a list of children separated from parents and was using that to track down children to try to reunify them. But he was keeping the list quiet, knowing it would be controversial. Tell us about that list and how you found out about it, how it was leaked to you.

DICKERSON: So Jim De La Cruz was part of a group of federal officials who tried to come together to stop family separations from happening as soon as they heard the idea was proposed in early 2017. And then when separations began anyway, he began to track them. There was utility in this list. He used it to speak to officials at ICE and to convey information on a case-by-case basis that would help workers inside of HHS shelters track down the parents of children - you know, inconsolable and confused children they were caring for in order to hopefully be able to reunite them one day. But De La Cruz knew that he was working in a very politicized environment. He knew - it was very clear at that point that even though hundreds of separations had taken place, he had evidence of them. He was hearing the administration say officially in statements to reporters like me that these separations weren't taking place.

So he knew that having this list - it seems, based on what sources have told me - he knew that it was not something that the administration was going to look kindly on. And so he kept it quiet. And in fact, when one official who had access to the list provided it to me and I corroborated it with several others who also had direct access to it, I wrote a story about it in The New York Times. And De La Cruz's boss was so upset, he asked that De La Cruz stop keeping the list. He said it made it look like DHS was doing something that it wasn't when, of course, the opposite is true. The list reflected that separations were in fact taking place even though the administration was arguing that they weren't. But De La Cruz and his colleagues pushed back. And they kept adding to it because they were determined to do anything that they could, you know, if not to stop separations from happening then to at least try to get as many of these children reunified as possible.

GROSS: So it sounds like the more important goal to people involved with this family separation program at that time was to keep it a secret, as opposed to making sure there were safeguards to make sure parents and children could be reunited.

DICKERSON: That's right. And, again, this stood out from my experience as a reporter. You know, usually, when you're working on a story that government officials - you know, regardless of the administration or political party - don't like, they'll either tell you, you know, no comment or they'll try to change the subject or they'll offer context that at least presents, you know, their side of the story, where they're coming from, even if they know the public isn't necessarily going to like it. It was really outside the norm to be told something that was happening wasn't happening. That is in part because officials at DHS headquarters, at least early on, didn't know about these separations that started to take place in places like El Paso. But over time, officials did know about this effort, did know that hundreds of separations had taken place, and they chose not to acknowledge it, you know, in response to questions from reporters and in response to questions from Congress.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Caitlin Dickerson, who wrote The Atlantic magazine's new cover story, "We Need To Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Caitlin Dickerson. She wrote The Atlantic magazine's new cover story, "We Need To Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy." The policy, called zero tolerance, was created during the Trump administration mandating that parents who crossed the southern border illegally with children be separated from their children so the parents could be prosecuted criminally.

A real turning point was in June of 2018, when ProPublica leaked an audio recording of separated children crying for their parents inside a government facility. And at that point, more than 4,000 children had been separated from their parents. We're going to play the audio that was leaked. But first, I want you to set it up for us because the audio - even if you speak Spanish, the audio isn't always that clear. So tell us what we're hearing.

DICKERSON: These are children being processed in a CBP facility. They've been...

GROSS: That's Customs and Border Protection.

DICKERSON: Thank you. Yes. They've recently been separated from their parents, and they're crying out for help. Some are saying, I want my mom, I want my dad. I want to go with my parent or I want to go with my aunt. You know, they're asking for information. One child recites her phone number that her mother had her memorize in case something like this were to happen. And so they're basically crying out for help.

GROSS: So this is from June of 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Crying, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Crying, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Crying, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Crying, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Crying, speaking Spanish).

GROSS: It's painful to hear that.

DICKERSON: It is.

GROSS: That was a turning point. In what way?

DICKERSON: I think this audio was really significant for a couple of reasons. You know, at this point in 2018, you've been hearing the administration say over and over again, we do not have a family separation policy, that this isn't happening when it clearly was. But you also, in particular in conservative circles, have - throughout the administration, I should say - been hearing this narrative that really vilifies people who cross the border, even those who do so to seek asylum. They were described in official communications by the administration as criminal as, you know, active threats to the homeland in the United States, painting with this broad brush this entire group as really bad and scary and threatening. And then you have this audio, which, one, very clearly shows children crying out for their parents, their mothers and their fathers, which illustrates, of course, these children had been separated, but it also kind of brought back down to Earth the narrative vilifying these families.

You know, when you've been hearing for many months that, you know, anybody facing border enforcement measures is, you know, a bad criminal threatening gang member, but then you hear these cries, which, of course, the cries of children are universal - there's no real difference between what a Central American migrant child sounds like crying out for their mom and, you know, an American child born here in this country sounds like. And so there was a way in which those sounds, I think, just cut through the politicized narratives and made very clear, you know, who is it that's being impacted by these policies?

GROSS: So you write that that audio caused so much outrage that Republicans started worrying about losing the midterms.

DICKERSON: That's right. Paul Ryan, who at the time was the Republican speaker of the House, actually said in a meeting with John Kelly, who at that point had been elevated to become President Trump's chief of staff, that if a law, you know, banning the separation of families for the purposes of deterrence wasn't passed, he felt that the Republican Party was going to really suffer in midterm elections and lose a significant number of seats. It was a moment when you had Republicans like Ted Cruz coming out and saying, you know, nobody believes that children should be taken away from their parents. Children need their parents. That tenor of that conversation has, of course, changed among Republicans. It was a rare moment of kind of universal frustration and universal cries for this policy to go away. And eventually, it did.

GROSS: So after zero tolerance was officially ended, what was the policy?

DICKERSON: After zero tolerance officially went away, the administration turned toward other harsh border enforcement policies to try to mitigate illegal immigration. So you may recall the migrant protection protocols, which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their asylum proceedings to be handled. Then, with the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, they introduced another policy called Title 42, which really took away the legal right to access asylum, based on this argument that it was necessary to protect public safety in the United States. And then, you know, you had the separation of families stop, but it really wasn't clear what was going to happen to the thousands of kids who were still in federal custody at the time and their parents, who were either detained in most cases or had been deported. And so it wasn't until a federal court ruling that reunifications were ordered and began.

GROSS: And where are we in that process now?

DICKERSON: So to this day, there are hundreds of families who have not been officially reunited. The number is between 700 and a thousand, depending on whether you're talking to the ACLU and the federal government. You know, that highlights a problem that really impacts this whole story, which is that separations weren't well-documented. So the data today remains imperfect. But we do know that even among that group, there are more than 150 children whose parents still haven't even been located by the federal government. So the process of reunification has been mandated by this federal court case, and the process is underway. But it's been slow going. And even those families that have been reunited are very much still struggling today - you know, the kids as well as the parents.

GROSS: You spoke to some parents earlier and more recently for this story. What did you learn directly from them about how they're doing?

DICKERSON: What I hear from these families is that they've, in many ways, not really been able to move on. One father, Nazario Jacinto Carrillo, I interviewed him in 2018 when he was separated from his 5-year-old daughter, who turned 6 in federal custody. He was one of the parents who was told by officials in DHS that if he agreed to be deported, his daughter would be sent back to him in two weeks. So when we first connected, even more time had passed, and his daughter, Filomena, still wasn't home.

You know, when I called him and let him know that I was going to be writing this story, I told him, at that time, that there were some families that still hadn't been reunited. And he was completely speechless. You know, I asked if Filomena looks back on her experience in the United States, and he actually tried to put her on the phone with me so that she could answer herself, but she immediately started crying just from hearing her dad talk about this. So it's hard to overstate the degree to which this experience is still present daily in the lives of the families who went through it.

GROSS: What has the Biden administration been doing both in terms of trying to reunite families that have not yet been reunited? And also, how have they changed policy about families crossing the border illegally?

DICKERSON: So the Biden administration has been unequivocal in its opposition to family separation. Of course, you heard President Biden, even while he was campaigning, talk about how he felt like this policy was criminal. And it's not one that they've pursued. They formed a task force to try to reunify the remaining separated families. And at this point, they've reunified at least 400 of them. Now they're getting to these more difficult cases that are just going to take longer because so much time has passed. It's hard to track people down. And those who haven't gone through the process of applying for reunification yet, in many cases, they don't have the resources to do it. They continue to push forward.

You know, what you haven't seen is substantial accountability for what happened. And I asked Biden's DHS secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, about this. He said that accountability for those responsible for zero tolerance, including those who still work in the federal government, should fall to the Department of Justice. But the Department of Justice, in court cases brought by separated families, has been defending the practice. And you really see them struggling to figure out how to deal with their own increasing border crossings, you know, and not resorting to policies like family separation, but really also being on the receiving end of frustration from both progressives, who would like to see more permissive policies or more clarity in terms of who's allowed into the United States and who isn't, and then, on the Republican side, this criticism that they're being too lax.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Caitlin Dickerson. She wrote The Atlantic magazine's new cover story, which is called "We Need To Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Caitlin Dickerson. She wrote The Atlantic magazine's new cover story, "We Need To Take Away Children: The Secret History Of The U.S. Government's Family-Separation Policy." That policy, zero tolerance, was created during the Trump administration mandating that parents who crossed the southern border illegally with children be separated from their children so the parents could be prosecuted criminally.

Your article ends with you trying to reach Stephen Miller, the anti-immigration hawk who really pushed through family separation. And you couldn't reach him for a comment. You finally reached him, and he said he had run. So you really didn't get to talk with him. And then you got an explanation from one of his friends about why he didn't have time to talk with you. Tell us what you heard.

DICKERSON: When I was struggling to get a hold of Stephen Miller as I reported this story, I heard from a close friend of theirs that, you know, since Miller and his wife, Katie, who'd worked for DHS and was one of the spokespeople who told me families weren't being separated when they were, you know, ever since they had children, they had just kind of fallen off the map socially. People were having a hard time getting a hold of them because they were so focused on being parents. And Miller actually gave me that explanation or a version of it as well at one point when I got him on the phone. And he quickly said he had to run and sent me a text and said, you know, sorry, I'm with our little one.

I included that detail as well as the fact that throughout my interviews, you know, really countless of these officials, invoked their own children in our conversations casually, you know, by saying, you know, can we schedule this interview around, you know, a soccer game that my kid has or, you know, can I call you back? I have to go pick them up from school. I included that because we'd be having these conversations about a policy that that obviously has lifelong consequences for the children impacted by it. And a lot of times, these officials seemed to kind of disassociate from those consequences.

You know, people were described as data points or they were described as, you know, being in opposition to this administration and its goals and its promises to voters. And then they would turn and talk about their own children in, of course, entirely different terms. And it just seemed that they weren't able to make the very clear connection between the two groups. And so I included that to point that out. I think that that disassociation between officials' own children and children crossing the border was really critical here in how this policy came to be.

GROSS: You think that this story of the family separation policy and how it was implemented and the chaos that happened and how people signed off on it without really understanding what the consequences would be, you think that this should be studied by organizational psychologists and moral philosophers. Why?

DICKERSON: Because it's no surprise that, you know, people like Stephen Miller or Jeff Sessions, you know, who made careers arguing for harsh enforcement policies, proposed zero tolerance and other policies like it, what was surprising here was the number of people I interviewed who to this day say they opposed separating families, that they had grave concerns about it and didn't believe in it. And yet they were responsible. You know, it was their job as members of the bureaucracy who are subject matter experts, who had, you know, moral concerns, as well as very clear concerns based on their own expertise, to point out why this policy wasn't a good idea, wasn't going to be effective, that the government wasn't prepared to put it into place, and they didn't do so. They offered a variety of explanations.

You know, they would say that it wouldn't have been strategic for me to raise concerns in front of Stephen Miller because he was so influential. I couldn't alienate myself in front of him. Or they would say, you know, I figured this idea was so outlandish and ridiculous that it would never be put into place, and so I didn't spend a whole lot of time on it as a result of that. You know, this sort of tacit allowing of this policy to proceed all the way to the point of implementation, that was enabled by a lot of people who really don't seem to have understood, at least at the time, how much they were doing to allow it to happen. And that, to me, feels like it has a much broader lesson for all of us.

GROSS: Caitlin Dickerson, thank you so much for speaking with us. And thank you for this incredible piece of reporting.

DICKERSON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Caitlin Dickerson's in-depth investigative article about the family separation policy is titled "We Need To Take Away Children." It's the cover story of the new issue of The Atlantic. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with actor Melanie Lynskey, or Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, author of the new book "The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five Year Crack-Up Of The Republican Party," or Paul Holes, the investigator who was instrumental in identifying the Golden State Killer and cracking many cold cases, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And to hear what our producers have to say, check out our newsletter, which you can subscribe to via our website at freshair.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "AMERICAN DREAMS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "AMERICAN DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.