NYT’s Caitlin Dickerson On the Reality of the Border Crisis

In a recent episode of “The Weekly,” the Hulu and FX series from the New York Times, immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson shared the very difficult story of a family that sought asylum in the United States, only to be separated from their baby for months.

Constantin Mutu was only four months old when he was taken from his family, and he spent the next five months living in U.S. foster care before being reunited with his parents in Romania. As Dickerson reports, Constantin is the youngest known child — of thousands of children — to have been separated from their families under a Trump administration policy known as “zero tolerance.”

Dickerson opened up in a new interview with Katie Couric Media about Constantin’s case, the emotional and physical toll the trauma of family separations, and what migrants go through when seeking asylum.

Katie Couric: On “The Weekly,” you shared the story of Constantin Mutu, the youngest known child separated from his family at the U.S. border. Can you speak about the life Mutu’s had after he entered the U.S.?

Caitlin Dickerson: Constantin arrived in the United States with his parents and his four year old brother in February 2018. His parents were hoping to seek asylum. They did everything legally. He and his father presented themselves at the U.S. border, his father handed over their passports and Constantin’s birth certificate, and said that he faced had persecution in Romania because he’s Roma and wanted to seek asylum status. But instead they were separated from each other.

They had no idea — because this is months before the federal government acknowledged it — that they were caught up in this policy that later became known as “zero tolerance,” which separated thousands of families from each other. So as a result, Constantin spent five months of the first year of his life living with a foster family in Michigan. His father was detained for most of that time period, and his family in Romania was just in shambles and desperate for him to come home.

KC: What do you think his situation tells us about what’s going on at the border?

CD: The Mutu story is really telling in two ways. First, it helps us understand better the calculation that families make when the come to seek asylum in the United States, which can be really hard for Americans to try to understand and identify with in any way. People are taking these incredibly dangerous journeys, they’re risking a lot, and in many cases they’re selling everything that they own and coming with very little. The story is also telling in that, during the time I spent with Constantin’s family after he was returned to Romania, I really began to see the long-term impact of family separation — not just on him and on his parents, but on his siblings and his extended family. It’s clear this is going to be with them for a very long time.

KC: What has happened to the other children who were separated from their families? Are we still seeing fallout from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policies?

CD: All the children who were separated from their parents under “zero tolerance” were either reunited with their parents or placed with other family members or family friends in a sponsorship situation of their parents’s choosing. But hundreds of separations have occurred since “zero tolerance” ended, and of course we this year that actually thousands of family separations like Constantin’s took place before “zero tolerance” was announced publicly. Those separations are still being accounted for.

We’ve heard from many doctors and mental health experts who study children and talk about how, depending on the age and the circumstances of a separation, that can be something that has a permanent impact on a child’s physiology — their ability to cope with stress and their ability to develop and grow into healthy adults. We’re definitely seeing the fallout, and we’re going to continue to see the fallout probably for decades.

KC: What conditions are those detained in U.S. immigration facilities facing? 

CD: What’s undisputed at this point is that there is a lot of overcrowding in facilities where people are held as soon as they cross the border. In many cases, there are also issues with sanitation, with medical care, with sufficient food, and with people being able to get access to lawyers to contact their family members. All those things have been very well documented.

KC: Last week, acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan testified in Congress about the overcrowding in detention facilities, among other things. What were your biggest takeaways from that hearing?

CD: I was really interested to hear the DHS secretary talk about family separations, because he was overseeing Customs and Border Protection when the separations took place. He was asked about the family separations that continue and the reasons why these separations take place. He said it was difficult to talk about any individual case, and that he would have to look at the specific case and all the details of it about it in order to explain why someone was separated in one case or another. That was really unsatisfying to people who are watching this issue really closely.

KC: And what aspects of the border crisis do you think people aren’t aware of?

CD: There are so many, unfortunately. I think a lot of people don’t understand on a fundamental level that seeking asylum is a completely legal thing to do. It’s something that’s protected under American law as well as under international conventions and treaties.

Another thing I worked really hard to do is to reflect the wide variety of reasons why people come to the U.S. and of backgrounds that people have, because of course the easiest thing to do would be to paint everyone who crosses the border with a broad brush, but that would be completely inaccurate. The reality is messy, because you do have legitimate asylum seeking families but you also do have dangerous people who under the law should not be permitted to cross into the U.S. at the border. So we try our best to reflect all of that, but I think it’s a real challenge for the audience to appreciate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

*If you’re looking for how to help those affected by this crisis, here’s a brief list of organizations seeking donations: the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) provides legal services, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights advocates for children, the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center also provides legal services, and the ACLU fights for civil rights.

This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.