The Justice Department has broken off negotiations to pay damages to families who were forcibly separated at the border during the Trump administration.
The negotiations, which began in the early months of the Biden administration, aimed to settle claims filed by migrant families who have been separated under the “zero tolerance” policy while seeking entry into the United States. for asylum and other reasons.
But government officials abruptly halted all settlement negotiations on Thursday, Lee Gelernt, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union and one of the main negotiators, told NPR.
Gelernt said the Justice Department had not explained why he was walking away from the talks.
“We see no reason for this other than this administration does not want to use any political capital to help these children,” Gelernt said in an interview. “History will not judge this decision kindly.”
In a statement, the Justice Department said the parties were unable to reach a settlement, but “we remain committed to working with the plaintiffs and bringing justice to the victims of this heinous policy.”
The controversial immigration policy was dismantled during Biden’s first week as president.
In total, the Trump administration separated more than 5,000 families who entered the United States visa-free. Under this policy, adults entering the United States from the southern border were prosecuted for illegal entry. Because children cannot be imprisoned with adults, young children have been taken to separate federal facilities.
Government reports ultimately revealed that the administration did not have a clear plan and did not allocate resources to help reunite parents or guardians with their children when it implemented the enforcement policy. zero tolerance. Hundreds of families remain separated, many more say they are still suffering from the effects of separation. More than 100 have filed for damages with the government, Gelernt said.
Republicans and Democrats have appeared united against the draconian policy, calling it a humanitarian failure. President Biden called this a “moral and national disgrace”. And the settlement talks went quietly behind closed doors for several months – until October, when the the Wall Street newspaper revealed that the amounts of financial compensation could reach up to $ 450,000 per person in some cases.
At this point, the negotiations became a political responsibility for Biden and his administration, who were criticized by Republicans in Washington.
Lawyers representing torn families have insisted most of the settlement amounts will be much lower, but the story has sparked huge outrage among GOP members, who have tried to link the issue to the growing number of arrests. at the southern border. They argued that giving large cash settlements to migrant families would further encourage illegal immigration.
At a Department of Homeland Security hearing on immigration last month, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he viewed the whole concept of compensation as a personal affront.
“As you can imagine, many Americans think it’s a pretty outrageous idea to offer massive taxpayer-funded payments to illegal immigrants who have broken our laws,” Grassley told DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. , accusing the Biden administration of the current immigration crisis.
Grassley noted that families of military personnel who die while on active duty receive a $ 100,000 tax refund. “Under what circumstances, if any, do you think it is appropriate that an illegal immigrant who broke our laws receives more money from the government than the family of a deceased serviceman,” he asked. .
Biden administration officials and the president himself have been frequently asked about the settlement talks, which looked likely to become an election year issue in 2022.
Lawyers representing the families say they are deeply disappointed and argue that everyone who has fallen victim to the zero tolerance approach deserves a reward, including financial settlements. They also say the government could easily end up spending even more money to tackle these cases than if it had simply come to a settlement.
The Women’s Refugee Commission condemned the Justice Ministry’s decision to withdraw from the negotiations.
“This move is a shameful and profound betrayal of the government’s responsibility to right the wrongs caused by this heinous policy,” Katharina Obser, director of the group’s Migrant Rights and Justice program, said in a statement.
“While the United States can never undo what happened, we expected the Biden administration to engage in good faith redress and redress efforts,” she said. , adding that “the cruelty of intentionally tearing apart families has inflicted indescribable and lasting trauma on children and their parents coming to the US border in search of safety.”
Kathryn Hampton, deputy director of the Physicians for Human Rights Asylum program, also noted the long-term effects of separation on children. The organization has documented the psychological damage and trauma many have suffered, including PTSD, depression and anxiety.
“Instead of bowing to right-wing ideologues, the Biden administration should seek justice and accountability for the deeply traumatized children and parents who have endured these atrocious acts perpetrated by the United States government,” Hampton said in a statement.
The Biden administration has said it will continue to identify and reunite families separated under the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, the ACLU is in negotiations with the administration on other issues, including the possibility of legal status for separated families. These talks will continue, Gelernt said, but the end of financial negotiations will not make them any easier.
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