Despite finishing Separated by Jacob Soboroff over a week ago, reviewing it is a struggle for me. It’s a complex book, so I worry I won’t do it justice. At the same time, at the center of it is the human ability to be cruel. And in this case children, even babies, suffer along with their parents. As the subtitle says, Soboroff takes us “Inside an American Tragedy.” It’s not easy to summarize and analyze. So, my goal isn’t to retell every event in the book, but to discuss how well Soboroff tells the whole story.

Parents from Central and South America flee their homes for many reasons. Most often because gangs or traffickers dealing in drugs or humans threaten their lives. Naturally, they don’t want to leave their children. So, they travel North together to the U.S. and Mexican border, often paying thousands of dollars for help traversing the distance. 

And starting in 2017, the U.S. government separated all of these parents from their children. The basis for this is the criminal charges leveled on refugees coming to the U.S. without a legal visa. Previously, the government only charged them in civil court. Now we level criminal charges, and thus we incarcerate those parents. 

Therefore, according to the law, they can’t stay with their children. This means the government now “houses” children in centers around the country, primarily near border cities. And often their parents are deported without them. 

What Soboroff does with his reporting and this book is explain what that means in the reality of human lives. He shines a light on government cruelty and incompetence. Also, he digs deeper into the truth despite the government preferring to tell a sanitized, more palatable version.

Quotes that shook me

“The Trump administration was potentially “creating thousands of immigrant orphans,” as a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement put it, by deporting separated parents before they were given a chance to reunite.”

“Since the summer of 2017, the Trump administration has taken at least 5,556 kids from their parents. But still today, nobody knows for sure exactly how many families have been separated. In February 2020, the United States Government Accountability Office noted, “it is unclear the extent to which Border Patrol has accurate records of separated [families] in its data system.” Scarce few of their stories have been told.”

My conclusions

This is the story of our fellow humans—both parents and children. And Soboroff follows a particular father and son in detail throughout the book. It’s also the story of how investigative reporting pulls together a variety of pieces and integrates them into a more complete narrative. Soboroff takes readers behind the news story, including complicated logistics and his own emotional process.

This is also a story of government and law enforcement. Soboroff interviews people in both entities and discusses their decisions and actions. He includes Border Patrol agents and bosses and Office of Refugee Resettlement folks. Whenever possible, he moves all the way up the chain of command to those at the top of the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.

Soboroff’s writing style is clear and concise. He knows how to organize and explain so these complex issues feel readable. And still, he never shies away from the intense emotions and visible difficulty his subjects experience.

This book may make you angry, sad, shocked, and upset. I’d be worried about myself if I didn’t feel that way while reading it. But it’s a story that must be told, and Soboroff is skilled at that telling.

I recommend Separated: Inside an American Tragedy if you want to wrap your arms around this issue. But I definitely recommend carefully choosing when you read it and incorporating some self-care in the process. I read this as a buddy read with two friends, and the ability to discuss the issues helped me process them. Your self-care may look different, but don’t neglect the potential emotional impact of this book.

Pair with something lighter. Really, anything that might balance the emotion. Perhaps Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, since it’s a humorous take on kids and family.