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Journalist Jacob Soboroff describes reporting painful policy of child separation :

October 5, 2020

Editor’s note: For more coverage of the 2020 AAP Virtual National Conference & Exhibition, visit

In June 2018, NBC News and MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff found himself at the epicenter of a story on the separation of children and their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

During the Virtual National Conference Sunday, he shared his journey as one of the first national reporters to break the story on the “heinous conditions” faced by separated children amid the administration’s zero tolerance policy. Soboroff’s work on the origins and outcomes of this policy led to the New York Times bestseller “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.” He received a 2019 Walter Cronkite Award for Individual Achievement by a National Journalist and shared in the 2019 Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism.

The AAP was central to his reporting, Soboroff said during a discussion with Julie M. Linton, M.D., FAAP, a lead author of the AAP policy statement Detention of Immigrant Children and co-chair of the AAP Council on Immigrant Child and Family Health.

Conditions inside the two facilities Soboroff toured amounted to government-sanctioned child abuse, Soboroff said, quoting then-AAP President Colleen A. Kraft, M.D., M.B.A., FAAP.

Those words made a lightbulb go off in his head.

“I thought, this isn’t just what I’m seeing in front of me, this is a systematic failure by our government that is going to leave a lasting mark on children for the rest of their lives. ... And without the voices of pediatricians, I don’t think you would have seen the U.S. public galvanize around this issue, Democrat and Republican, like they did, to (help) reverse the policy.”

The separations, however, have continued.

Soboroff was granted access to a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, that held about 1,400 boys and “Ursula,” a central processing station in McAllen, Texas, with slightly fewer children.

“I saw the kids in cages under those Mylar blankets sleeping on concrete floors, literally supervised by security contractors in the watchtower,” he said, describing Ursula. Only then did he realize the “full horror of what was being perpetrated in the name of the American people.”

While the problem was decades in the making, he said, faulting both Democrat and Republican administrations, the current administration “super-sized a punitive and deterrent-based immigration enforcement system” to a level most people did not expect.

About 5,500 children have been subjected to the family separation policy, and over 1,000 of them separated before the zero tolerance policy took effect are not accounted for due to the poor recordkeeping. Multiple problems remain.

Soboroff hopes pediatricians can share their experiences with immigrant children to keep these stories in front of the public.

“You all are in the unique position of nonpartisan neutral trust as health care professionals to make this resonate with everyone,” he said. “I don’t think there is a group that has more credibility in this field as an umbrella organization than the American Academy of Pediatrics, but also physicians on an individualized basis. …The voices of experts have never been more important.”

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