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Biden administration is negotiating financial compensation for families separated at border by Trump

An asylum-seeking boy from Central America runs down a hallway at a shelter in San Diego in 2018. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Migrant families separated during President Donald Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” border crackdown are in talks with the Biden administration to receive significant financial compensation for the ordeal, according to three people familiar with the settlement negotiations.

The dollar amounts remain under discussion, but one person with knowledge of the negotiations said payouts could total $450,000 per person, with some families potentially receiving $1 million.

The U.S. government took more than 3,000 children away from their parents along the Mexican border in May and June 2018, the peak of Trump’s Zero Tolerance prosecution effort. Department of Homeland Security officials say the total number taken while Trump was in office exceeds 5,500.

In most cases, the children were separated from their parents by border agents and sent to government shelters, while their mothers and fathers were jailed to face prosecution for entering the country illegally.

Trump officials launched the crackdown with little interagency coordination and no effective system to track and reunite children with their parents, resulting in bureaucratic chaos, according to federal courts and oversight reports. Physicians for Human Rights, a New York-based human rights organization, called the separations “torture.” The American Academy of Pediatrics told CNN that it amounted to child abuse.

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Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who has led the legal effort to reunite the families and has filed a class-
action lawsuit seeking damages, declined to discuss the ongoing negotiations, which were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“Given the harm these families suffered, especially the young children, and that the harm was deliberately inflicted by our government, they deserve not only adequate monetary compensation but the chance to remain in the United States so that they can have a chance to lead a safe, healthy life,” he said.

Gelernt said he is “hopeful that families will receive holistic relief as President Biden promised.”

Attorneys for DHS, and the departments of Justice, and Health and Human Services have been involved in the settlement discussions, said one of the people familiar with the negotiations, who, like others, was not authorized to discuss the sensitive talks. DHS referred inquires to the Justice Department. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment.

Chad Wolf, the former DHS acting secretary who was the department’s chief of staff during the separations, criticized the potential settlements on Twitter, writing: “There are no limits to what this Administration will do.”

“Everything they have touched re: border security / immigration is wrong for America,” he said, referring to Biden officials. “But this may be at the top of the list.”

Trump administration used an early, unreported program to launch family separations

Lawyers for migrant families have been meeting with the U.S. government for months as part of “a nationwide effort” to settle federal lawsuits and administrative tort claims over the separations, federal court records show.

Separate from the ACLU lawsuit, attorneys and advocates had filed other claims over the separations even before Biden took office. Those cases were often handled individually or in small groups by pro bono attorneys and filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

But the Biden administration began considering a standardized way to handle the lawsuits, offering families compensation depending on trauma the parents and children suffered while in U.S. government custody.

The ACLU and other lawyers said in an Oct. 20 court filing that they had made “meaningful progress toward settlement” and asked the judge to stay proceedings through Dec. 13 so negotiations could continue.

Among the plaintiffs in one ACLU lawsuit filed in 2019 in Arizona are two children, ages 7 and 8, who sobbed as they were pulled from their mother, a 7-year-old girl who fell asleep and woke up to discover that her father had vanished, and a 13-year-old girl handcuffed on Christmas Day to control her while her mother was taken away.

“Defendants destroyed families to inflict severe pain on Central American immigrants, hoping that this would cause them to abandon their asylum cases and deter other Central Americans from seeking asylum or other immigration relief in the United States,” the lawsuit said.

A motorcycle-riding lawyer searches remote parts of Guatemala for parents whose children were taken from them in the United States

People close to the settlement agreement say that $450,000 may end up being roughly the average compensation, but that the number will vary. Some parents may not receive any compensation at all, depending on any criminal charges against them. Others still have not filed tort claims.

Advocates have raised concerns that publicizing possible financial settlements could put families in danger. Roughly 1,000 parents remain separated from their children and are mostly living in Central America, some in areas where organized crime groups engage in kidnapping and extortion.

The first families reunified under the Biden administration crossed back into the United States in early May. A total of roughly 60 families have been reunified since then — a pace much slower than many advocates had hoped for.

Sieff reported from Mexico City. Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.