Watch ICE Director Almost Have Human Emotion In PBS's 'Separated'
PBS gives Donald Trump's family separation policy the "Frontline" treatment tonight in "Separated: Children at the Border" to start the series' 37th season. It's a concise look at how we got to this weird place, and how migrant families' lives have been disrupted; it even offers some incredible footage of Thomas Homan, then the acting director of ICE. reacting to the now-infamous recording of children crying in a Texas shelter. Correspondent Martin Smith never quite gets a straight answer from anyone in the government when it comes to the most important questions, though: Did anyone think this was a good idea? Why? And it turns out: At least one person didn't.
"Separated" looks at the humanitarian crisis first from the perspective of those swept up by it, parents and children from Central America who traveled through Mexico and crossed the border, requesting asylum when they finally found Border Patrol agents. We meet a mother from El Salvador, Maritza Amaya, who was released along with her nine-month-old son after 24 hours; she shows her ankle monitor to the camera and admits it hurts to wear. She came to the border after her brother was murdered by a gang; recently, they began telling her she and her baby would be next.
Smith -- we're more accustomed to seeing him traipsing around Syria and Iraq rather than the war zone in our failed state -- visits Arnovis Guidos Portillo, a father in El Salvador. He was deported quickly, but still hadn't been reunited with his little girl, age six, who was still detained in the US when filming starts. He hadn't seen her in over a month. Portillo shows Smith her toys, and some photos, and says it's hard to look at the photos with her still missing. He says CBP agents lied to him when they took her away, telling him there was no room on the bus but he could take the next one. Of course, there was no next one.
That's one of the running themes in stories of migrants subjected to the tender mercies of "zero tolerance": constant lies, no real information. When (spoiler alert, but a happy one) Portillo's daughter is finally returned to El Salvador, he tells Smith she simply wouldn't talk for a long time, but she started talking shortly before Smith came back for a follow-up interview. She tells her dad guards would tell her he would be coming to see her, but of course that never happened either. The casual cruelty of it is astonishing.
The program intersperses the migrants' stories with the larger context: the 2014 wave of unaccompanied minors, whose arrival following gang wars in Central America permanently sunk Barack Obama's hopes of an immigration deal in Congress, if there'd been any. The rightwing liars who insisted the migrants had all been drawn by DACA, for which they'd have been ineligible even if they weren't running for their lives. Back to Mexico for a segment on the nortthbound freight trains nicknamed "The Beast" -- the tops of the cars are patrolled by gangs who extort people's life savings, and throw riders off if they have no money. The grim fact that six out of 10 women heading north are raped, so many migrant women get a contraceptive shot before leaving.
The program looks at the Obama administration's frustration on the issue, and Obama's casting around for something that could be done. One Obama official, Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, recalls the time the idea of taking children from their parents, as a deterrent, was floated and immediately dismissed. No one had to speak out against it, she says, because it was "on its face a terrible idea." Obama, trying to do Hope and Change in a speech, gets shouted down by anti-deportation activists.
And of course there's Trump, his anti-immigrant campaign, and his anti-immigrant presidency. We see John Kelly, then Homeland Security secretary, suggesting family separation on cable TV in 2017, then saying at a Senate hearing he "couldn't imagine" taking kids away from parents unless they were in danger. Smith notes in voice-over that three months after the hearing, the administration started, with no public announcement, a pilot program to prosecute every single border crosser, which entailed taking their kids away.
"Separated" offers us some heroes, like Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission, who says every time she met with Trump administration officials in 2017, they saw family separation as the magic solution to the problem of people asking for asylum -- which, the program notes, is an international right recognized under US law. Brané later tells of a visit to a shelter for "tender age" children where she was told she could meet kids whose names and ages were on a list; she says she asked to see a baby (listed by name and "0 years") and a two-year-old. The guards went to get them but came back and said when they called the names, no children answered. Apparently no babies answered to the name "Kafka" either. She says she suggested maybe talking to the adults in charge of the babies, but the guards just seemed confused and shook their heads. At least they stopped short of acting out the scene in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen asks a soldier, "Who's in charge here?" and the guy replies, "Aren't you?"
And of course there are heavies. A spokeslady for the anti-immigration "Center for Immigration Studies" who dances all around to avoid calling Trump's family separation policy unprecedented -- Smith, admirably, doesn't buy it, pointing out this isn't the same as putting kids in foster care when citizens are sent to jail or when parents are abusive. The best he can get from her is a slight concession when he notes people say it's "appalling": "I think it's appalling, but we have to do it." Really? In a rare departure for most TV journalism, Smith notes the only real precedent in US history was the policy of removing Native American kids from their homes and sending them to boarding schools, although he refrains from the cliché about "killing the Indian and saving the man."
Then there's former acting director of ICE Thomas Homan, who's mostly patriotic bafflegab, very certain family separation is what we have to do to enforce the law, and is in fact not even a new "policy" -- just the very complete enforcement of laws that, well, OK, we've never enforced to this extent and also it's not the law.
Viewers of a preview copy of "Separated" were warned that since the news on this issue is still developing, the final shape of the film isn't definite. But this astonishing excerpt is already up at Frontline's website, and it's certain to make the final cut. Homan says he's never heard the ProPublica tape of detained children crying for their parents. "I've heard many children cry in my 34 years. I don't need to hear children cry." And then Smith plays the recording.
After a microsecond of almost human emotion, Homan does a fine job of staying stonefaced. Sure, he's a parent, he cares, he says, but we HAVE to address the border. Why the way we've done it? No answers there.
So now that we've tried the worst thing yet, now that we've lied to the children, and to their parents, and to the American people, but people still want to risk their lives to come here... we shudder to think what bright ideas the bastards will come up with next.
PBS Frontline presents "Separated: Children at the Border" tonight (July 31) at 10 Eastern & Pacific, 9 Central and Mountain (check local listings). Can also be streamed online here starting tonight.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.