zero-tolerance policy

Gayle King on What She Saw at the U.S.–Mexico Border

Gayle King.
Gayle King. Photo: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images

This week, CBS This Morning co-anchor Gayle King was one of several journalists on the ground in McAllen, Texas, where she was covering the Trump administration’s brutal zero-tolerance immigration policy, which tore families apart. There, she spoke with affected migrant parents and children, and witnessed the pain and heartbreak firsthand. After returning to New York, King spoke with the Cut about her experience in McAllen, the trauma these immigrants are enduring, and why she won’t apologize for showing emotion.

On getting to Texas:
I called CBS This Morning executive producer Ryan Kadro at home on Saturday morning — in the whole time I’ve been at CBS, I’d never done that before. I’d seen interviews with Dr. Colleen Kraft [the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics], and I thought, How is this possible that we live in a country where it’s okay to separate these mothers and fathers from young children?

Why she wanted to be on the ground covering the story:
My concern was that after a while, stuff like this becomes white noise. You know when you see too much of one thing or sometimes things are just too horrible to wrap your brain around, so you hold your hands over your ears and you don’t want to hear it anymore? Well, I want people to be listening with both ears on this particular story. You don’t have to be a parent to understand. Pain is pain, and what I saw was pain. What I saw was fear.

On talking to people affected by the policy:
I was talking to one man through a translator, but I watched him stroke his son’s head in his lap because his son has a bad back. I saw a mother gripping her son’s hand. She fled because she witnessed her husband murdered. The gang then turned to her 17-year-old son and said, “If he doesn’t do what we want, then we’re going to kill him and the whole family.” So, she fled to save her son. Then they both got here and had ankle monitors put on them — and they didn’t even know why. They were asking my producer, who spoke Spanish, “Do you know why this is on my leg?” We hear Secretary Nielsen say it’s like being in summer camp and that the immigrants know what’s happening to them — but they have no idea what’s happening.

On telling their stories:
I keep saying to everybody: What would it take for you to leave America? How bad would it have to be for you to go to a place where you don’t speak the language and you may not be welcomed? When you’re willing to go there and risk this all, because it’s better than staying? This isn’t a Planes, Trains and Automobiles situation for these people — one woman told me that she took 20 buses, walked for five or six hours, and took a dinky boat across the Rio Grande River to get here. She still said it was worth it.

On “fake news”:
I take great offense to the term “fake news.” We are reporting a story with our own eyes. I’m not making stuff up; I’m physically talking to people, touching people, listening to people. But I heard the president say the “fake media” doesn’t tell you about drug smugglers and gang members who are coming in and how they’re using children as pawns. It makes my heart hurt. There may be some cases like that, but that is not what the majority of people are doing. They are trying to save their lives.

On never seeing anything like this in her career:
Nobody has seen anything like this before. And you know why we haven’t? Because it hasn’t been done. With the past two administrations, their thinking was that they would at least keep the families together. I met a woman from El Salvador. Her daughter is 16, her son is 10. They ran because a gang was threatening to rape the daughter and kill the whole family if she didn’t join the gang. So not only do they come to the U.S. and they’re separated — the siblings aren’t even kept together.

On sympathizing with Rachel Maddow, who showed emotion while covering “tender-age” shelters where toddlers and babies were being held:
First, what the hell is a “tender-age” shelter? So, Rachel Maddow was reading that for the first time on air, and had a moment. I get it … I get it. I just recently said that the Statue of Liberty is weeping. Somebody then asked me, “Well, is that journalistic or crossing the line?” I said, “Okay, have you read the plaque on the Statue of Liberty? Just read that again.” If I’m guilty of showing humanity, then I plead guilty. There’s nothing un-journalistic about saying that it’s wrong for children to be separated from their families. That’s a primal thing.

On returning to New York:
This story does stay with you, because you would like to see a resolution. Once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it. Now’s the time for us to be calling on all our “better angels,” as they said in the Gettysburg Address. Where are they?

On covering the Trump administration:
You always think, well it’s certainly not going to get any worse. It certainly couldn’t get worse than the immigrant ban at the beginning — remember when people were marching in the streets and shutting down the airports? Then, it couldn’t get worse than Charlottesville, after a woman lost her life and people were marching in the streets with Tiki torches yelling Nazi slogans. Certainly couldn’t get worse than that. But, oh yes it can. Now we have children literally crying for their parents on tape. I tell you, my heart just hurts. It makes me think, what kind of people are we that we are just watching this happen and nothing is changing?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Gayle King on What She Saw at the U.S.–Mexico Border