The Justice Department has ended settlement negotiations with attorneys representing migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, a lawyer representing the families said Thursday.
The DOJ had been weighing settlement payments to those affected by the policy, during which border officials separated migrant children from their parents or guardians in an effort to dissuade future migration.
“It would be an understatement to say we are disappointed that the Biden administration allowed politics to get in the way of helping the little children deliberately abused by our government,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading litigation against the family separation policy.
Litigation in the case will continue, Gelernt said.
A representative for the Justice Department said the government plans to continue talks.
“While the parties have been unable to reach a global settlement agreement at this time, we remain committed to engaging with the plaintiffs and to bringing justice to the victims of this abhorrent policy," said Dena Iverson, a department spokesperson.
The Biden administration has come under fire from Republicans over the potential payments, which were as much as $450,000 to help compensate for physical and mental suffering endured by migrants, according to initial news reports. GOP lawmakers warned such payments could provide an incentive for migrants to make the trek north to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Earlier this month, a group of Republican senators, led by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., introduced legislation that would bar the Biden administration from making settlement payments to migrant families.
“While American families are struggling anxiously just to keep pace with President Biden’s inflation, the President now wants to make millionaires out of people who crossed the border illegally. It’s beyond parody,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a co-sponsor of the bill, said after its introduction.
Biden has made relief for separated families a cornerstone of his immigration policy in an effort to distance himself from the stringent approach of former President Donald Trump. Shortly after taking office he established the Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, which identifies families separated under the Trump administration and reunifies them in the United States.
According to a task force progress report released in September, 3,948 children were separated from their parents under the zero-tolerance policy between July 2017 and Trump's departure from office in January.
At the time of the report’s publication, the task force had reunified 50 children with their parents, bringing the total number of reunified children to 2,221. Hundreds of others had previously been reunified under court order and through the efforts of nongovernmental organizations, the report said.
There remain 1,727 children who have not been reunified and 50 children still in the reunification process.
Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security asked for public input on how to permanently prevent the separation of migrant families at the border. Members of the public have until Jan. 10 to submit comments on how to prevent a repeat of the policy, according to a Federal Register notice.
At a Nov. 16 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was pressed by Republicans on news reports about the settlement payments. He declined to answer, deferring litigation questions to the Justice Department.
But Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the family separation practice “strikes me, as a former plaintiff's attorney, as a pretty solid lawsuit.” He also called it a “ridiculous conclusion” for his colleagues to suggest migrants would travel to the border in hopes of being separated from their children and obtaining civil compensation.
Suzanne Monyak contributed to this report.