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“Release Is Only Way to Save Lives”: Migrant Families Face Separation as COVID Spreads in ICE Jails

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As the United States leads the world in coronavirus infections, we go behind the walls of immigrant jails, where infection rates are also soaring, and also look at how thousands more jailed migrant parents may be separated from their children starting Friday. “Release is the only way to save the lives of people in custody,” says reporter Jacob Soboroff, who went inside these ICE jails and first witnessed kids in cages in 2018, which he writes about in his new book, “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to begin today with the coronavirus in the United States, particularly in ICE jails. As the U.S. leads the world in COVID-19 infections, today we go behind the walls of immigrant jails, where infection rates are also soaring.

Nearly a thousand employees of the private companies that run the jails for ICE — that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement — have now tested positive. That’s according to congressional testimony given Monday by the rarely seen heads of the four leading for-profit jail companies: CoreCivic, The GEO Group, MTC — Management & Training Corp. — and LaSalle Corrections.

This comes as ICE reports more than 3,000 immigrants in ICE custody have tested positive, and at least three have died, including a 51-year-old Mexican man who died Sunday named Onoval Perez-Montufa. A third of the prisoners who tested positive remain detained, while other have been deported, some while still infected.

Also Monday, a federal judge said he’ll wait until next week to rule on whether migrant parents detained by ICE in family detention centers should be released in order to mitigate their exposure to COVID-19. The decision means ICE could begin to separate more than 300 more children and parents starting Friday, the deadline set by a federal judge in California for ICE to release children from its three family detention centers, but not necessarily their parents. Meanwhile, experts are set to testify today before — Wednesday before the House on children in Customs and Border [Protection] custody.

For more, we’re joined by reporter Jacob Soboroff, who’s gone inside these ICE jails, witnessed kids in cages at the border when the Trump administration began carrying out its child separation policy in 2018. More than 5,400 children were separated as a direct result of the Trump policy. Jacob Soboroff writes about this in his new book, Separated: Inside an American Tragedy. This is Jacob reporting from an ICE detention facility in McAllen, Texas, in 2018 for NBC as Trump administration officials denied children were being held in cages.

JACOB SOBOROFF: This is the first time since — this is the first time ever that children have been separated on a systematic basis — look at those photos right there — from their parents. And that is because of the Trump administration. People in here are locked up in cages, essentially what look like animal kennels. I don’t know any other way to describe it. And strangely, The Washington Post gave Senator Jeff Merkley what they call three Pinocchios for saying that kids are locked up in cages in here. That’s exactly what I saw today. What’s different than what was going on in this building during the Obama administration is the systematic separation of children from their parents under this “zero-tolerance” policy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jacob Soboroff in 2018. He joins us now from Los Angeles for more. He’s a correspondent for NBC and MSNBC, received the 2019 Walter Cronkite Award and the 2019 Hillman Prize for his reporting on child separations.

Jacob, welcome to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your book. If you can start off by telling us exactly how many children and parents you believe are still separated? And then comment on this latest news of a federal judge and what he’s doing about separations.

JACOB SOBOROFF: First, Amy and Juan, I wanted to say to you both, it’s an honor, truly, to be on with you.

The honest answer is I don’t know. The U.S. government doesn’t know. And the ACLU, which won the reunification of the children separated by President Trump and the Trump administration under “zero tolerance,” doesn’t know, either. The only thing we do know is that 5,400 children were systematically taken away — tortured, in the words of Physicians for Human Rights, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization — by the Trump administration, for no other reason than to deter families from coming to this country. And while there were 2,800 kids in that first initial group separated under “zero tolerance,” there were about a thousand-plus separated before record-keeping began officially, and a thousand separated since.

And so, there are still attempts to locate and reunify families that were both deported to their home country without their children — parents, I should say — and then families that were separated and may be in the interior of the United States, but the government just simply can’t track them because of shoddy record-keeping. And that’s one of the things that I write about in the book. There were attempts, time after time, by career officials in the government, that did have the best interests of the children at heart, to keep track of them, but the Trump administration, at multiple key inflection points, stymied those efforts, including Scott Lloyd, the former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, who considered destroying a list of separated children and parents when it leaked to The New York Times.

And then, as far as the children, 335 parents and children who are at risk of separation today, you talked about it earlier in the broadcast, but the simple version of that story is that the Trump administration could release parents and children together from ICE detention right now, as we’re all talking to each other. They simply refuse to do that, despite the fact that their lawyers are literally pleading for their lives because of coronavirus, which is spreading rapidly through not just adult ICE detention centers, but is now in family detention centers, as well. And so, while coronavirus threatens their lives, the government has chosen to let this July 17th Friday deadline approach, where Judge Gee here in California has told the administration to release the children, but the administration will not commit to releasing them with their parents.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jake, specifically on the coronavirus situation, how has that thrown the current immigration detention system into further chaos? President Trump has been using it as a justification — further justification for his wall and for keeping out asylum seekers, as well as undocumented immigrants. You would think that the officers of ICE themselves would begin to lobby for release because of the threats to their own health.

JACOB SOBOROFF: As a matter of fact, Juan, I spoke to one current employee at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, one of the detention centers with the worst instances of coronavirus, and the way he described it to me inside was a “war zone,” in our reporting for NBC News. And what he meant by that was that he alleged that they were sharing PPE, personal protective equipment. The first word is “personal,” yet he alleges that CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns the facility, is not giving them adequate personal protective equipment. Detainees are being housed together, both infected and noninfected — at least they were — he alleges.

The bottom line is, release is the only way to save the lives of people in custody, absent very stringent quarantine and health measures. And when you talk to at least this employee — and we talked to multiple employees at that particular detention center — when you talk to lawyers who represent children in ICE detention — jails, basically, for families — there are some families in these detention centers who have been there nearly a year, when the Flores settlement agreement stipulates they can only be in there for 20 days — they say the only way to save lives is to let people out at this point.

And again, that’s sort of what I wanted to — I mean, frankly, I didn’t understand at the time — and that’s just the simple truth — when I was in the middle of covering family separations, how bad this was, how we got to this point, but how much worse that it could get. And people said to me at the time, “It’s going to get worse than this.” Even though President Trump, on June 20th, 2018, signed that executive order, I was warned it was going to get worse. I didn’t understand what that meant. Yet here we are, where you have children at risk of dying inside detention simply because the government continues to dangle family separations over these parents.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about these companies, these private companies, like GEO, CoreCivic, MTC, that testified Monday before the Homeland Security Committee? How big of a portion of the detention business do they have? And could you talk about the amount — what kind of oversight there is over them, and what their profit levels are like in this situation?

JACOB SOBOROFF: The majority is the answer. And yesterday, before the House Homeland Security Committee, which we were watching closely, you know, they were asked some of these key pieces of information that have been emerging, in not just in our reporting but amazing reporting from other journalists over the course of the last couple weeks and months during the virus, including chemical agents being used — I mean, things that have been documented in the press. And we heard, from several of these leaders, statements that directly contradicted reporting that was out there.

And frankly, I wasn’t surprised. These sites have been described as black sites. I’ve been inside the Adelanto ICE detention center in the High Desert here in Southern California, where the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security observed nooses in cells of detainees. I personally observed detainees clearly in mental distress put into solitary confinement and isolation. And this was on a tour provided to me by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, after I went to visit with a separated parent. That was two years ago. Imagine those conditions now combined with the coronavirus.

One of the key things that I continue to be astonished by is that the guards inside these ICE detention facilities are expected to test themselves for the coronavirus. These facilities — and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not made it a policy that these private prison companies are to test the employees. So it’s basically a honor system — an honor system. And so, if an infected employee doesn’t test, is asymptomatic, or is symptomatic and comes to work, the problem is very obvious.

So, the appeals are to have more stringent — the big appeal is to release everyone now. And then, more limited appeals are to have more stringent testing requirements, to have more supervision of medical care — things that you would think are commonsense, but across the board, you’re hearing, are not happening in these facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: Jacob Soboroff, can you tell us about your dinner with Katie Waldman? She is now Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary, just recently married to Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, known for his fierce anti-immigrant sentiments. But before that, Katie Miller was Kirstjen Nielsen’s spokesperson at Homeland Security, vehemently defending the administration’s family separation policy. Talk about that day.

JACOB SOBOROFF: Sure. Well, Amy, I went out to dinner with Katie, then Katie Waldman, now Katie Miller, and my colleague, Katy Tur, the MSNBC anchor, and we were having what’s known as a source dinner, not off the record, just discussing the topics of the day and what Katie Miller was currently working on. And Katy Tur and I were asking Katie Miller about the experience — and this is after the family separation policy had ended — about defending the family separation policy.

And I’m paraphrasing here — the exact language is in the book — but Katie Miller said that DHS, her colleagues, had sent her to the border because they believed she lacked compassion during the separation crisis, and they wanted to make her more compassionate, to which I asked, “Did it work?” And she said — and I said to her, “Did it work? You know, I’ll never forget what I saw.” And she said, “No, it didn’t work. It didn’t make me more compassionate.” And I asked her point-blank, “Are you a white nationalist?” And Katy Tur sort of sat up in her chair when I asked Katie Waldman, Katie Miller, that. And she said, “No. But I believe if you come to America, you should assimilate. Why should we Little Havanas?” And in that moment, I was taken aback. I mean, I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to someone at that point?

But the reason I included this in the book is it shows the underlying thought process, sort of the intentionality, of the people involved in the separation policy, despite the fact that they were warned on multiple occasions and people continually pressed back in them.

And when Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, was asked about this last week, she said that Katie Miller denied that she said this as written. If that’s the case, ask Katy Tur. Ask the other sources who have come forward to me, before this book came out and subsequent to the book coming out, sharing with me that she said similar versions of that exact story to them. And again, if you don’t believe me, you’re believing someone who stood up for Kirstjen Nielsen denying that a family separation policy ever existed, when not only I saw it with my own eyes, but we as a nation saw it with our own eyes. I find it preposterous that Katie Miller would deny that she said that, when it’s all out there for everybody to see.

AMY GOODMAN: Jacob, interwoven throughout your book is the story of Juan and José, a father and son from Guatemala, who said they were fleeing narcoterrorists. Tell us their story and what happened to them in the United States.

JACOB SOBOROFF: Yeah, the reason I wanted to include Juan and José — and those are names that they picked to protect their privacy and the lives, frankly, of their family, whom they left behind in Guatemala — is because their story isn’t perfect.

Juan had come to the United States several times before as an economic migrant, worked and returned. And he told me that openly. He wasn’t ashamed of that. But he did return to the United States with his son once they faced threats from narcos in Petén, Guatemala, in the north of Guatemala. And so he decided to flee.

And when they did flee and they made it to the United States, after, as everyone knows, one of the most dangerous journeys anyone can choose to make — and you don’t make that decision to take that journey lightly — they were separated. When they got to the border, they saw the Border Patrol, who they intended to turn themselves in to in order to seek asylum. They were brought to Yuma Border Patrol station, where, incidentally, President Trump visited for a press conference just a couple weeks ago, and were almost immediately separated — Juan led to one cell, José led into another cell. And they didn’t see each other again for nearly five months, Juan being brought to Adelanto, to the ICE detention center I mentioned to you in the High Desert of California, and José being brought to a shelter in South Texas.

And José and Juan were almost never reunited, to be honest with you. Juan was coerced into signing away his rights to be reunified with his son, almost joined the group of 400 parents deported without their children by the Trump administration. And were it not for an immigration lawyer named Lindsay Toczylowski at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center here in Los Angeles, they may never have been reunited. And that’s one of the things from their story I wanted to include in this book, as well, that immigration attorneys, the work they do is so extraordinary, to me — and I learned about this during this process — as important as any first responder on any frontline. And the courage and the determination of this one father and son, the willingness to share their story so that this doesn’t happen again — and that’s why, they told me, they shared their story — is why I wanted to put them in the book.

And just one other thing, quickly, if I may. When I was down on the border with President Trump a couple weeks ago, Juan said to me, “If you see President Trump, do me a favor and ask him a question: Why did he separate us? Why did he traumatize us psychologically?” And the fact that he is articulating that to me, you know, that’s a story that plays out 5,400 times, each one its own individual story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jake, I wanted to ask you — one of the amazing revelations in your book is of a memo that a top homeland security lawyer sent to Secretary Kristjen Nielsen — at the time, she was the head of Homeland Security — specifically saying that the family separation policy could break numerous laws and violate constitutional rights of families, yet Nielsen went ahead and signed the policy into existence. Could you elaborate on that?

JACOB SOBOROFF: Yeah. John Mitnick was the general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security. He had worked at Raytheon and was brought in by the Trump administration to come back to DHS, where he had worked during the Bush administration. And in this legal memo, attached to a secretarial decision memo, they’re called, which was sent to Nielsen by her deputies, including Kevin McAleenan, Thomas Homan and Francis Cissna from USCIS, Mitnick’s legal analysis was attached to the memo. And it hasn’t been previously disclosed, at least the language in the memo itself, and I published it for the first time in the book.

You said it, Juan: She was warned that family separations would be violative of multiple U.S. laws and, not only that, potentially violate the U.S. Constitution and the due process rights of the migrants coming to this country, their human rights. Yet Nielsen decided, after a period of time where she sat on the memo and deliberated, to sign what was called “Option 3” in this decision memo: to separate families from their children.

And to me, it makes the denial that this policy ever existed by her — and she sent out this famous tweet, “We do not have a family separation policy, period.” And she also stepped up to the podium in the White House briefing room for that disastrous press conference, I think a lot of us remember, to deny the policy. It just — it makes it almost unbelievable, because it was her, Secretary Nielsen, who, after receiving legal advice that the policy may violate the constitutional rights of migrants coming to the United States, she signed it herself and then proceeded to deny that the policy even existed. And that is why I wanted to include the language from the memo specifically, so everyone can see what she had in front of her, she considered herself, and yet she decided to put it into place nevertheless.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe, Jacob Soboroff, your first visit inside one of these detention jails, the children that you saw, and how this changed your life?

JACOB SOBOROFF: I’ll never forget it, Amy, for the rest of my life. June 13th, 2018, Brownsville, Texas. I walked into a former Walmart, now called Casa Padre, ostensibly a shelter, and it was 250,000 square feet. There were approximately 1,500 migrant boys detained inside for approximately 22 hours a day. And hundreds of them, maybe as many as 400, had been there only because they were systematically separated from their parents by the Trump administration. The facility was literally on the verge of overflowing. It had a variance from the state of Texas to have five beds per room instead of four beds per room.

I walked around this facility on a tour with other journalists and officials from the government and from the shelter system itself. We saw children watching films, Moana, the Disney movie, in the loading dock of the former Walmart in line for chow. You know, I’ve been inside a prison. I’ve been inside several county jails. And I said at the time, and I maintain today, that the place was called a shelter, but, effectively, they were incarcerated.

And one of the things that was startling to me is that one of the officials — and I write about this in the book, the portion where we take the tour of this facility — said to me, “You know, smile at the children. They feel like they’re animals in cages being looked at.” And ironically, that wasn’t the facility where I saw the cages. It was just days later, on Father’s Day 2018, at the McAllen Border Patrol processing station — Ursula, it’s known as — that I saw what Katie Waldman, Katie Miller, at the time told me was the epicenter of the policy: children in cages, sitting on concrete floors, under Mylar blankets, supervised by security contractors in a watchtower. And every time I recall this, it makes me sick, what I saw.

Border Patrol agents, who admitted to me they were stressed and strained and struggling, they were not licensed social workers. They could not touch the children. There were only four social workers in the facility for all of the children that were separated by the Trump administration.

It was a disaster. It was a — you know, we said this at the time; it’s still true today. It was a man-made disaster by the Trump administration, that was, according to one official from the government, “the greatest human rights catastrophe of my lifetime,” were the words that that government official used. They called Scott Lloyd — this same official — “the most prolific child abuser in American history” for allowing this to happen to the thousands of children in his custody. He was the custodian of all of these children, the unaccompanied children within the federal government. And again, despite warnings —


JACOB SOBOROFF: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jake, I’d like to ask you — I wanted to ask you about another startling revelation in your book.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You write that after President Trump had ended the family separations by executive order, that there was a federal health official who was pressured to lie under oath about the effects of that policy on children. And this was — he was being pressured as he was being prepped for a congressional hearing. Could you talk about that and who was involved?

JACOB SOBOROFF: Yeah. You’re talking about Commander Jonathan White, who was the federal health coordinating official, who was one of the officials that had warned politicals within the government of the horrible effects that the separation policy would have on children. Commander White was a career official from the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which, incidentally, is now being dispatched to deal with the coronavirus, and had warned the government that family separations would have horrific effects on children.

And so, when they were in what’s known as a murder board, a practice session, Commander White and several other officials, including Scott Lloyd, if I’m not mistaken, for the first congressional hearings into the separation policy, there was a huge argument over whether or not those who would testify would say that family separations were harmful to children, scientifically harmful. And yet again, Katie Waldman, Katie Miller, was in that room. And Commander White, according to several people who were in the room, got into a big argument with Katie Miller. She said to him, “You’re a bleeding-heart liberal,” and essentially pressured him to say that family separations were not harmful to the interests of children, despite the facts he knew they were.

And ultimately, when Commander White appeared before this committee, he said exactly what he believed, despite the best efforts of officials within the Trump administration, including Miller and another spokesperson for homeland security who were in that room, who were pressuring him not to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Jacob Soboroff, again, ICE reporting more than 3,000 immigrants in ICE detention have tested positive, at least three have died. Talk about what has to happen right now.

JACOB SOBOROFF: Well, one thing I should say is that Chad Wolf, who was an architect of the family separation policy, which you’ll read in the book, and is today the acting secretary of homeland security, has said he doesn’t want to do a, quote-unquote, “jailbreak” of the 25,000 people in ICE custody. And I think that every activist and lawyer for migrants would tell you, that is not what’s being asked of the administration currently. They’re being asked to release medically vulnerable, medically sensitive people who are at risk in the facilities with the greatest incidences and occurrences of coronavirus, which has already killed employees of these facilities, including a sergeant at Eloy.

And in the absence of this order yesterday by a judge in the D.C. District Court, this sets up this huge moment on Friday, where you could have 335 parents and children separated by the Trump administration, because the children have been ordered released, but the government, the Trump administration, refuses to release the parents.

So, in the midst of a global pandemic, a pandemic which rages through our immigration detention system, the Trump administration is not focused on releasing families who are vulnerable — at least that’s what the lawyers and the activists say. They’re focused on dangling this family separation, two years after this horrific policy, over families yet again. And, I’m sorry to say, that’s where we are today.

AMY GOODMAN: Jacob Soboroff, I want to thank you so much for being with us, correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC. His new book, Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.

And this breaking news: The U.S. has just carried out its first federal execution in 17 years. Daniel Lewis Lee was executed this morning.

Up next, the Washington NFL team, whose name is a slur against Native Americans, says it’s dropping that name. We’ll speak with one of the Navajo activists who led the charge to remove the R-word from the team’s name. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: New York City’s All-City High School Latin Ensemble singing and playing at home together alone.

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