Cover of the September 2022 Atlantic featuring story on U.S. family-separation policy

Cover of the September 2022 Atlantic

By Trevor Pyle

To guide readers through a thicket of bureaucracy and a shocking policy that had been born there, Caitlin Dickerson first had to slash through it herself. Once she had, the reporter for The Atlantic had unwound the history of one of the most controversial government actions in recent years: the Trump administration’s child-separation policy.

While the 2018 policy, which separated more than 5,000 children from their parents, had been written about, litigated and eventually ended, Dickerson was driven to answer questions that still loomed about the policy’s history.

Dickerson said: “Very little was known about how or why the policy to implement (family separations) had come to be. In particular, I and other reporters covering the story didn’t understand why the separations effectively began in secret, or why we had been misled by government officials for so long about the fact that they were happening.”

The resulting story — “The secret history of the U.S. government’s family-separation policy’ — is a marvel. It is an elegant example of an investigative narrative, braiding wrenching emotion with well-versed insight into government bureaucracy, and how the latter can either stop or allow outrageous policy depending on how well or poorly the maze of power is navigated.

Atlantic reporter Caitlin Dickerson

Caitlin Dickerson

The battle to get a full picture was fought on several fronts. Dickerson tracked down elusive interview subjects, perhaps most notably Kirstjen Nielsen, who signed off on the “Zero Tolerance” policy. Dickerson also used specifically crafted FOIA requests, including one that eventually uncovered a key Border Patrol memo. And The Atlantic’s legal team helped advance a lawsuit Dickerson had originally filed while working for The New York Times seeking more information.

Dickerson spoke with NPR about the story. She also answered, in depth, our questions from Storyboard; that Q&A, which follows below, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In her answers, she gives some tips journalists may want to try for prying loose stubborn facts. She also makes a plea for fellow reporters to dig into bureaucracy, no matter how impenetrable or sluggish it may seem.

“There are substantive debates happening in government that have great bearing on the lives of Americans, particularly as Congress remains largely inert and presidents turn more frequently to administrative tools that allow them to bypass lawmakers,” she said. “As reporters, we need a deep understanding of all that so that we can report on it, and do so responsibility.”

As someone who reported on the child-separation policy as it was happening, what made you recognize a story such as this one — more time-intensive, more thorough, more evasive of easy answers — was necessary?
Even after all the attention that family separations drew during their peak in the summer of 2018, very little was known about how or why the policy to implement them had come to be. In particular, I and other reporters covering the story didn’t understand why the separations effectively began in secret, or why we had been misled by government officials for so long about the fact that they were happening. Not only did that defy our basic expectations for the relationship between the government and the press in any functioning democracy, it was also uncharacteristic of an administration that typically shouted from the rooftops about the aggressive measures it was taking to crack down on the border. All those factors combined to suggest that there was much more to the story, but I think the biggest reason that I decided to return to it, and to spend as much time as I did, was the scale and unprecedented nature of harm involved.

I think our country is going to be looking back–if sporadically–and reflecting upon family separations for many decades, and I wanted to make as much information as possible available for those purposes, now and in the future.

Please describe the reporting and writing process and timeline for this story.
My mandate for this story was to figure out what happened and why, which was extremely broad, so I tried to break the reporting down into methodical steps.

The first thing I did was work with The Atlantic’s legal team to push forward a lawsuit against the government while I was still at The New York Times over a request for records related to family separations. When I received an initial trove of documents as part of that case, I organized them into a timeline, which became a critical organizational tool that held almost all of my reporting; it eventually grew to be several hundred thousand words long. I then added information from new clips, congressional and inspector general inquiries and documents that had been obtained by advocacy groups, which they had either posted online or agreed to share with me.

Once I had that information in order, I started doing interviews while continuing to nudge other FOIA requests and lawsuits and adding new documents to the timeline as they came in. I started almost all of my interviews by explaining that family separations seemed to have caught the whole country’s attention, but that few people fully understood. Then I would ask people to tell me their version of the story, chronologically, starting at the very beginning. For some people, that meant starting when they got a job in the Trump administration in January of 2017; for others, it meant starting with September 11, 2001.

I added excerpts from my interviews to the timeline, which allowed me to easily make side-by-side comparisons between how different people recalled an event and what the documents and news clips showed in order to look for inconsistencies and additional leads.

Inside spread of September 2022 Atlantic story on U.S. "family separation" policy

Inside spread of September 2022 Atlantic story on U.S. "family separation" policy

You write about how much work it took to build the story: more than 150 interviews, thousands of pages of documents, information pried loose only after a lengthy lawsuit. In all that, what was your greatest reporting challenge, and how did you deal with it?
The sheer volume of material turned out to be the biggest challenge I faced, which is why I relied so heavily on the aforementioned timeline.

In addition to that document, I also created a separate document to keep track of important themes as they emerged. Throughout my reporting, I used the themes document to organize excerpts from interviews and government records by topic so I could see how new material was fitting into the information I’d already amassed.

With many potential interview subjects refusing to speak on the record, is there any interview you were especially proud or happy to get? Or any that were a particular challenge?

I was especially thrilled to do the first in-depth on the record interview with Kirstjen Nielsen (former director of Homeland Security) about why she signed off on Zero Tolerance.

It was also really important for me to speak to Tom Homan (who had been acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Though he’s not shy about appearing in the media, he hadn’t gone on the record about coming up with the idea to separate families in the first place, or the role he played in pushing for separations to happen over several years.

And I worked really hard to convince Neris Gonzalez, the Salvadoran consulate worker who watched separations play out in a South Texas detention center where she worked, to open up. Though she no longer works for the Salvadoran government and still lives in the U.S., she was nervous about retaliation. But she’s also a person who is very dedicated to human rights, transparency and accountability, and she ultimately made what I thought was a very brave decision to make her observations public.

I usually don’t ask about specific pieces of information, but the memo to Border Patrol personnel in the Western District of Texas, which went contrary to the then-AUSA’s wishes, was illuminating. Can you tell me more about how you used the Freedom of Information Act to get it?
This was one of the most difficult documents to obtain because the first few versions of it that I received from Customs and Border Protection were either wholly or substantially redacted; I had to challenge those in court until I eventually received a clean copy.

The process started out with a general FOIA request for documents related to family separations. My FOIA strategy usually involves consulting closely with lawyers and knowledgeable sources ahead of time to make sure that the keywords that I use and the types of documents that I request are as narrowly tailored and strategic as possible.

Ultimately, the challenges that we levied against the administration’s initial redactions to this particular document were not terribly unique or complicated. In fact, you tend to see the same exemptions constantly invoked in an overly-broad way in FOIAs related to immigration.

Sadly, getting those redactions removed usually comes down to having the resources to pay for a lawyer who can craft an argument for why they don’t actually apply, which is what happened here. It took a lot of time and manpower to sift through the big troves of records we received, figure out which redactions were the highest priority, and then for a lawyer to craft arguments for each one. It was also a painful process because I wanted to challenge all of the redactions that seemed unreasonable. But when I figured out that I had an after-action report from the El Paso pilot program on my hands, which was clear from the document header as well as the subject line of an email, that became a top priority.

One striking feature was how you guided readers through the thorny thicket of federal bureaucracy. You use several techniques: brisk summaries, memorable quotes (“It’s a very poorly kept secret in Washington that principals never have any idea what they are talking about.”), and, in the case of the Hawks and the Careerists, useful terminology. How did you think about how best to educate readers how bureaucracy operates?
This is where talking regularly with my editor, Scott Stossel, came in handy. A lot of my interviews were three, four or even five hours long. So on the fly, I had to come up with shorthand ways of summarizing them afterward to debrief my editor. After hearing me describe an interview, he would draw connections aloud to previous lines of reporting.

I think these discussions made it clear early in the reporting that this story was not one that could simply be told chronologically, because just as important as what happened and when and why, who else was in the room, what was on their mind, what systemic forces did they feel they were up against and so on. I knew a lot of that would need to end up translated onto the page.

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, (editor-in-chief of The Atlantic) you make the case for bureaucracy — that the policy experts in the trenches who could have or did raise red flags were ignored, leading to a humanitarian disaster. If I can piggyback off that, is this also a reminder for news organizations how important it is to cover bureaucracy — the slow decision-making that can have major downstream effects?
Absolutely. This story made me realize how much the bureaucracy tends to be overlooked by reporters who are covering the executive branch of government, including me. Historically, the bureaucracy has remained largely opaque, in part to maintain its ostensible apolitical status, but also to preserve the right for officials to brainstorm without having everything that they say in meetings reported by the press.

I think that’s an important consideration, but at the same time there are substantive debates happening in government that have great bearing on the lives of Americans, particularly as Congress remains largely inert and presidents turn more frequently to administrative tools that allow them to bypass lawmakers. As reporters, we need a deep understanding of all that so that we can report on it, and do so responsibility.

Speaking of bureaucracy, I was bowled over by the keen insight in this graf, which recognized that a lack of policy expertise and vague language simply led a lot of people to miss the implications of what was being implemented:

The blandness with which (the policy) was described—as a way to crack down on lawbreakers—served as a sleight of hand. Because fluency on immigration policy is so rare in Washington, few people grasped the full implications of what was being suggested until it was already happening.

When and how were you able to recognize this dynamic?
A lot of sources— from within DHS and its components, as well as the White House — were eager to tell me that they had no idea, when the concept of Zero Tolerance was first introduced, what its consequences would be. In some ways that’s not surprising, as many people were eager to clear their name of responsibility. But by the time I got to reporting on this part of the story timeline, I knew that a lot of these people, to this day, don’t understand how the immigration enforcement system works: They had tried to explain it to me and been wrong many, many times.

Reporting this also went in the other direction: Officials at Homeland Security would insist that Health and Human Services or the White House had been warned in advance that family separations were coming. But when I asked for evidence, all I received were documents with bland language that obviously would have been confusing to a lay man. I also followed games of telephone to the ends, because one source would say I know X person told HHS in advance about family separations. I would then ask that person, who would say no, it was someone else. In the end, no one person took responsibility for issuing warnings in advance about what was coming.

There’s a lot to this story. When it came time to write, how did you organize it? Did the structure change much during editing?
This story started with one very long draft that was, believe it or not, much longer than the final version. We cut or sped up some sections and expanded others, but most of the editing involved shrinking and distilling, rather than moving things around, with the exception of the very beginning and the very end, which had always served as placeholders while I was working out the middle.

The final few words of the story, courtesy of a text from Stephen Miller, are perfectly apt. Did you know that was your ending as soon as you received his text?
Thank goodness for amazing colleagues. That kicker was a collaboration. I had been feeling for a while like the previous ending of the story, which is now the penultimate section, felt a bit clipped. But I didn’t want to add anything that could feel tacked on, so I was trying to let go.

Shortly before closing the story, when it can be very difficult to make changes because the piece is just about to be printed, my editor asked me to get on the phone with Jeff Goldberg and him to talk about an idea. Jeff said he had been talking with Allison Prevatt, our deputy general counsel, who led my FOIA litigation. She mentioned that she couldn’t stop thinking about Miller’s texts.

Before all this, I had considered ending with the messages but wasn’t sure about giving Miller the last word in a story about families whose lives he had effectively aimed to destroy. So when the texts came up again, Jeff, Scott and I agreed that they couldn’t have articulated any more explicitly what ultimately went wrong in order for family separations to occur: One group of people’s children were simply deemed less valuable than another.

They asked me to consider writing a new end with the texts and as soon as I did, I knew they were right, especially because of the way that it echoed an earlier part of the story I felt so strongly about, referring to moments when Trump administration officials would interrupt our interviews to tend lovingly their own children, then return to talk with me about taking other people’s children away, without apparently, picking up on any irony.


Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and now is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.

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