On Thursday, October 20, Atlantic Staff Writer Caitlin Dickerson spoke at Pulitzer Hall in conversation with Daniel Alarcón. Her cover story, An American Catastrophe, investigates family separation during the Trump administration.

“Depressing and disturbing.” Those are the two adjectives novelist Daniel Alarcón opened with to describe The Atlantic’s September 2022 cover story, encapsulating 18 months of investigation and spanning nearly 30,000 words. With a smile on her face, Caitlin Dickerson spoke directly to the audience, saying: “People talk about the story being maddening or frustrating. I’m glad that came through.”

With introductions by Keith Gessen, an assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the conversation didn’t dwell on pleasantries and went straight into Dickerson’s story, An American Catastrophe, and her journalistic process. Alarcón, who emceed the event, asked Dickerson a series of questions to which she responded concisely while opening up related areas of discussion.

Dickerson first emphasized the “lack of forethought in the system” and the incompetence of officials in the Trump administration who exacerbated the damage of family separation. Naming the architects of the Zero Tolerance separation policy such as Tom Homan, Stephen Miller, and Gene Hamilton, she discussed how these political “hawks” didn’t want to simply persecute the parents, but intentionally aimed at the goal of separating families.

Gaining popularity in the late ’90s, the “gospel of deterrence,” is an ideology Dickerson ascribed to these politicians who believe the best way to limit immigration is to introduce consequences.“ People become numbers through this deterrent approach to border crossing,” she said.

Alarcón questioned the consequences of family separation and voiced his own frustration, to which Dickerson mentioned Kirstjen Neilson, the Homeland Security secretary under Donald Trump who signed off on the memo which enabled the DHS to separate families. “She is responsible for [Zero Tolerance], and it will be in her obituaries one day….that said, she was at the center of toxic and dysfunctional forces within our government,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson acknowledges the immense amount of pressure Nielson was under from Trump and Miller to seal the border while also noting that she is not absolved of any responsibility: “That’s the responsibility you accept when you take the job as Cabinet Secretary.” Analogizing this to her own experience at the New York Times, Dickerson recalled the pressure she felt there, and how that pressure is only multiplied in the Cabinet. “It’s understandable on a human level,” Dickerson said, “but that doesn’t take her off the hook at all.”

Alarcón brought the writing process into conversation. Dickerson, whose background is in investigative reporting, recalled back to 2017 when sentences began happening more frequently. She started “scheming” in her mind about scaffolding the story. She later joined The Atlantic where Editor-In-Chief Jefferey Goldberg enthusiastically supported the pitch.

“For you, where does the story start?” are the words Dickerson echoed in every interview she conducted. She would plug responses, FOIAs, news clips, and other pieces of relevant information into a singular Google Document organized in chronological order. Alarcón, along with a few audience members, displayed their amusement at this style. With humor, Dickerson commented on how her computer was not happy with her.

Away from the politics and bureaucracy of the controversy, a heavier tone was felt in the room as Dickerson touched on the process of interviewing parents and children who were directly impacted by Zero Tolerance and the PTSD felt by these groups. One man, in particular, stuck out to her—Nazario. A father who had been separated from his daughter and deported back to Guatemala based on the lie that she would be returned to him, Dickerson still remembers the desperation in his voice. Recalling back to him crying on the phone with her, she described how he begged her for answers on when they would be reunited. According to Dickerson, Nazario and his family are now living together in Los Angeles.

When the floor opened up for questioning from the audience members, the last person stuck out in particular. With a shaky voice and tears swelling in her eyes, she confessed that she too was directly impacted by family separation through immigration customs. Her question revolved around interviewing those who have incompatible moral compasses with her own. “Ask the questions that come up that feel human and natural,” Dickerson responded after thanking the querier for her bravery and openness.

Dickerson’s commitment and passion for her work are motivational to any aspiring journalist, including myself. I was engaged not only because of the subject matter but also because of her eloquent speaking style and sheer intelligence. Her job as a journalist, she said, is translating what the government tells us it’s doing into what the government is doing. And that’s exactly what she did.

Alarcón (left) and Dickerson (right) via Tara Terranova