No settlement for separated migrant families amid criticism
Washington Immigrants whose children were taken from under former President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy have not reached a settlement agreement with the US government, the families’ lawyer said Thursday as he and other advocates resisted mounting criticism of a proposal calling for compensation to be paid.
Attorney Lee Gilert of the ACLU will not discuss the details of the talks nor confirm a previously reported settlement proposal of hundreds of thousands of dollars for each aggrieved person. However, he rejected the possibility of a trial, which would have separated parents of children as young as six months old as witnesses, if there was no agreement to end the litigation.
“All I can say is that there is no agreement on the table and we don’t necessarily have a timeframe,” Gilert said on a conference call with reporters.
The settlement talks, which are usually private until an agreement is finalized, have become a new line of attack for critics of the Biden administration who seek to link the issue to the growing number of immigrants seeking to cross the US-Mexico border over the past year. . Republicans questioned Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mallorcas this week when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“As you can imagine, many Americans think it is a very outrageous idea to make massive taxpayer-funded payments to illegal immigrants who have broken our laws, particularly in the midst of a record-breaking border crisis created by this administration,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, at the hearing on Tuesday.
Mallorcas referred questions from the senators to the Department of Justice, which is running the negotiations, although at one point he opposed the suggestion that the settlement would encourage future immigrants to seek to come to the United States.
About 5,500 children have been forcibly removed from their parents under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy under which parents are separated from their children to face criminal prosecution for illegal border crossing, even if they legally present themselves to authorities to seek asylum.
Trump halted the practice in June 2018 amid widespread anger, including from many Republicans, just six days before a judge ordered the program’s termination in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.
In addition to negotiating a potential settlement, the Biden administration is also working to reunite some families. It is believed that there are hundreds, possibly as many as 1,000-2,000, of parents who have been separated from their children and whose whereabouts have not yet been determined.
Settlement talks continued quietly for months when the Wall Street Journal reported in October that the Justice Department was considering paying about $450,000 to each person affected. The Associated Press later confirmed that the number was under consideration but that it had changed, though not substantial.
In addition to the payment, the settlement talks also included a discussion of granting families legal residence in the United States and the provision of counseling services.
When asked about the amount on November 3, Biden appeared to misunderstand the question and said that paying about $450,000 per person “would not happen.” He later said he supported the settlement, without specifying an amount.
“If, in fact, because of the outrageous behavior of the previous administration, you crossed the border, whether legally or illegally, and lost your child — you lost your child. He’s gone — you deserve some kind of compensation, no matter the circumstances,” Biden said. “I have no idea what that would be like. I have no idea.”
Advocates for immigrants say the size of the settlement and the families’ legal status miss the mark. “What is really the problem is the question of whether we, as a country, are OK with extracting children from their parents’ arms,” said Conchita Cruz, co-executive director of the Asylum Seekers Defense Project.
Gellert noted in the call with reporters that many separated families did not enter the country illegally, as critics claim, because they were presenting themselves to authorities to seek asylum, which is legal under US law. He also noted that even non-citizens can sue the US government, regardless of their immigration status.
“The reality is that lawyers almost always settle cases, usually because it is in their financial best interest to do so,” he said.
Advocates gave an idea of what the trial might entail, and brought on the call a woman who only named Leticia and tearfully described her son being taken from her when she sought asylum in 2017. That was a year and a half ago. They were reunited and she said the boy was showing signs of trauma from the separation.
“Even now that we’re together, we live in fear of a day when we might still be parted. I couldn’t imagine living that pain again,” she said.
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