Facing a massive spike in undocumented migrant families crossing the southern border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early May used a speech to the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies in Scottsdale, Arizona, to deliver a simple, blunt message: The Trump administration was abandoning the long-standing practice of keeping family units together.
“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said, adding flatly, “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
In the weeks since, the public reaction to the policy has been swift and fierce, fueled by story after story of young children being torn from their parents and heart-wrenching audio and video of minors being held in steel cages.
The outrage seemingly caught the administration off guard — Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has struggled to defend her agency, alternating between denying family separation is a new policy and claiming credit for it, often in the same breath.
Trump’s army of Twitter backers and TV talking heads also seemed to have been caught flat-footed at first. But in recent days, they’ve seized on two lines of attack: that everything the Trump administration is doing is actually Barack Obama’s fault, and that the mainstream media has refused to cover a similar surge of children to the border in 2014, presumably because of a media conspiracy to shield Obama from criticism.
This line of argument is untethered from reality and is little more than the sort of intellectually lazy “whataboutism” that most political fights on Twitter and the cable news networks inevitably devolve into lately.
I should know. Back in 2014 while I was the Washington bureau chief of BuzzFeed, I along with dozens of other reporters in DC and across the country spent months covering the surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border, the outrage against the Obama administration’s handling of the problem, and the human toll the White House’s policies were taking on mothers and children.
Allow me to show you the receipts.
The most cursory review of news coverage during the Obama presidency puts the lie to the notion that there was no outrage in the mainstream media of his administration’s handling of immigration issues.
As early as 2013, reporters were beginning to take note of a surge in unaccompanied minors coming to the border. The Los Angeles Times noted the uptick in Central American youth at the border in a June 3, 2013, story on the Obama administration’s policy of detaining underage immigrants in adult facilities.
But while Obama came under intense criticism for his administration’s handling of the situation, there are key differences between then and now. The 2014 surge was of unaccompanied minors that the Department of Homeland Security didn’t have enough space to house, resulting in children being put in temporary shelters along the border and in communities across the country. While unaccompanied minors remain a problem, this year’s surge includes huge numbers of families fleeing gang violence. It’s the Trump administration’s decision to take children away from parents and other adult family members, rather than release them pending resolution of their immigration cases or asylum requests, that has drawn condemnation. Between April 19 and the end of May, DHS says it has separated 1,995 children from 1,940 adults.
A few months after the Los Angeles Times story, the Houston Chronicle, pointing to federal detention data, wrote that between 2008 and 2011, the number of unaccompanied minors detained by federal agents stayed between 6,500 and 7,000 per year. But that number “shot up to 13,625 in 2012 and surged even more [in 2013] — to 24,668,” it said.
In 2014, the story dominated the front pages of US newspapers and virtually every cable news show for months as the White House struggled to address the growing humanitarian crisis on the border. According to LexisNexis, during 2014 “unaccompanied minors” and “border” occurred more than 3,000 times in English-language news sources alone.
Between June and December of that year, I wrote 11 stories relating to the surge of children at the border and the Obama administration’s efforts to address it. These included stories on the warehousing of children in communities across the country, DHS’s handling of pregnant minors in its custody, and the decision by the homeland security secretary at the time, Jeh Johnson, to rely on Bush-era policies to declare migrant mothers and their children a “national security threat” in order to keep families behind bars.
In November of that year, I traveled to southern Mexico to report on how the Mexican government, under pressure from the White House to stem the flow of children to the US prior to the midterm election, was creating its own humanitarian border crisis.
BuzzFeed also published numerous stories on other problematic aspects of the Obama administration’s immigration and border policies, ranging from a decision to deny asylum to a Somali reporter who was targeted for assassination by the terrorist group al-Shabaab to the shootings of unarmed Mexicans both in the United States and across the border by border patrol officers.
I wasn’t alone at BuzzFeed. Adolfo Flores, whose series on this year’s migrant caravan enraged President Trump, began focusing on immigration issues in 2014 and has been one of the biggest voices on the beat, covering everything from Obama’s detention policies to allegations of coercion and brutality by Obama-era Border Patrol agents.
2014 saw the launch of Vox, which targeted first the Obama administration’s policy decisions on immigration and now Trump's White House.
And there are the scores of local and regional reporters along the border working at the Texas Monthly, Nogales International, Arizona Star, and the Texas Tribune, to name but a few, who have literally lived and breathed the on-the-ground effects of immigration and border policy for years and even decades.
Since the 2014 surge, the critical coverage of the government’s handling of immigrants and asylum-seekers has never let up, and there’s been nothing sudden about the media’s interest in Trump’s approach to immigration.
If anything, the mainstream media have been warning of what was to come for more than a year. Last March, Reuters first reported that John Kelly, then the DHS secretary and now Trump’s chief of staff, was considering a new family separation policy for undocumented immigrants as a way of deterring more migration. A few months later, the New York Times revealed that federal officials were refusing to allow some immigrants even to apply for asylum at points of entry along the southern border, in violation of international law.
In November, I wrote that the Trump administration was unprepared for a surge of father-led immigrant families, resulting in DHS releasing most families while they awaited a verdict on their asylum applications. In December, Flores wrote about the first signs of the then-unofficial family separation policy being put in place.
Even the Trump administration telegraphed its crackdown. Five days after a presidential Twitter tirade, provoked in part by BuzzFeed’s reporting on the migrant caravan, the Department of Justice announced it was instituting a “zero-tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigration, including officially codifying the family separation policy already underway.
And in case not everyone had gotten the message, a month later, Sessions used the speech in Arizona to explicitly say the administration would now separate families at the border, arguing this “new initiative” was imperative to national security. “We are not going to let this country be invaded. We will not be stampeded. We will not capitulate to lawlessness,” Sessions vowed.
That the public would respond negatively to images and recordings of children being held in glorified dog runs begging for their mothers may have caught the White House and its allies off guard. But that’s only because they weren’t paying attention.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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