Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

'Frontline' shows the cruelty, captures the pain of Trump's order separating children, parents at border

This is what childhood trauma looks like.

Near the end of a stirring “Frontline” report on the effects of President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy on immigration, correspondent Martin Smith circles back to talk to some of the parents and children who were separated at the border but are now reunited.

One little girl, Meybelin, who is now back in El Salvador with her father after more than a month of separation in an Arizona detention center won’t let him out of her sight.

“If she doesn’t see me for a second,” her father explains, “she says, ‘Daddy where are you?’”

She does not want to go to school any more, he says, because it means separation from him.

As he is explaining his daughter’s newly acquired fear of separation, viewers see him standing on a pier with his daughter nearby onshore. He dives into the water, and when he does not instantly surface, the daughter goes racing into the water calling his name.

When Meybelin arrived back in El Salvador she was quiet and cried a lot, her father says

She has only recently opened up enough to talk about what happened in the center. She says she was taken on a plane and told her father would soon follow. But it became clear after repeatedly asking where he was that it was a lie.

When she asked guards where her father was, she says they told her they did not know.

She says she was scared, but the guards told her if she cried, “they wouldn’t pay attention” to her.

“It’s like she’s afraid the whole thing is going to happen again,” her father says, trying to explain his daughter’s behavioral changes since the separation. “She feels her time with me is running out.”

After seeing the little girl run into the water calling for her father, you don’t need any psychiatric experts to make the case for trauma. Marcela Gaviria, the producer of this report titled “Separated: Children at the Border,” found the perfect way to make you see and deeply feel what happened to this little girl because of the president’s policy.

That one moment of the filmmaker showing us trauma instead of telling us about it would be enough to have me singing the praises of this production that airs Tuesday night at 10 on PBS. But as viscerally powerful as the last portion of this hour is, there is plenty of history, context and policy, too.

Viewers will see how the administration of President Barack Obama also struggled to find a workable immigration policy for the southern border, and how it never quite came up with a workable strategy.

But viewers will also hear from some of the people who were in the room with Obama grappling with the issue. One member of the group says the idea of separating parents and children even made it onto the table with Team Obama. But as stymied as its members were, everyone instantly agreed such wholesale separation as Trump initiated with his “zero tolerance” policy was not worthy of consideration; it was wrong.

“Separated: Children at the Border” is one of the those timely, tough reports from “Frontline” that reminds me why it is the gold standard of broadcast documentary reporting.

It offers exactly the kind of clarity on complex, emotional issues so needed in these days of lies, confusion and propaganda from the White House.

A court-ordered deadline for children to be reunited with their parents passed last week with more than 700 children still in government shelters. One of the few comforts people of conscience have is knowing that journalistic operations like Frontline will remain on the case long after Trump’s White House team moves on to its next reckless plan and pack of lies to sell it.

“Separated: Children at the Border” can be seen at 10 p.m. Tuesday on MPT and WETA.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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