Potential pay outs of up to $450,000 to migrant families separated at the US-Mexico border are the latest political flashpoint in the Republican criticism of President Joe Biden’s immigration policy – and the political back-and-forth has put a tense relationship under further strain.
The debate has not only put the Biden administration in a politically precarious position, but more acutely, Biden’s response to the payments has stressed the already-fragile relationship between the government and families, according to immigrant advocate groups who work directly with them.
After Biden swatted down media reports about financial compensation for those separated under the previous administration, the Justice Department told attorneys representing families who are seeking damages that settlement will not be that high, sparking confusion among attorneys and advocates about the Biden administration’s position on the matter.
“It does not help when there’s a lack of clarity about what the federal government is willing to do for the families,” said Nan Schivone, the legal director at Justice in Motion, which helps locate separated families.
“When the news broke, it was not helpful because it sowed a lot of seeds of confusion about the willingness of the government to care for the families and atone for the past unlawful actions, the unlawful actions of the past administration,” she added.
Republicans have lambasted the administration for considering financial compensation for separated families, arguing in part that it should not exceed what’s provided to the families of fallen soldiers. In a nearly four-hour congressional hearing this week, at least five Republican senators repeatedly raised the ongoing settlement negotiations in questioning of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who deferred to the Justice Department, which is handling the settlement negotiations. Mayorkas is the chair of the family reunification task force ordered by Biden.
In recent months, tensions have also flared between the Biden administration and allies over the administration’s border policy, but concern over the handling of remedies for separated families puts one of the most sensitive matters at the forefront.
Behind the scenes, families at the center of the damages cases are still reeling over the moment more than three years ago when they were separated from their loved ones and are waiting for the Biden administration to execute on its promises.
“It’s only been words. I can’t have confidence in something like that,” Daniel Paz, a father who was separated from his 7-year-old daughter at the US-Mexico border in May 2018, told CNN, in Spanish.
Paz reunited with his daughter, Angie, after seven weeks. And in June 2018, the Trump administration ended the so-called “zero tolerance” policy, in which the Justice Department initiated criminal prosecutions of every adult illegally crossing the border.
Paz still gets emotional recalling the moment when officials took his daughter, along with other children, while at a border facility. “The kids were yelling. … We begged for them not to do it,” Paz, a member of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, said. “It was like a horror movie.”
Paz, an asylee, is seeking damages from the federal government.
More than 3,000 children were separated from their families at the US-Mexico border under former President Donald Trump and attorneys are still trying to reach the parents of 270 migrant children, according to a November court filing in an ongoing family separation case.
For parents who experienced their children being taken from them, with no hint of where they were going, it’s been difficult to trust the federal government, regardless of who’s president.
“These families have very little reason to trust the US government based on their experience when they were separated and deported,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids In Need of Defense, which has worked closely with separated families.
“You can’t really underestimate the amount of trauma that these families have gone through. That fundamentally makes them very nervous and skittish,” she added. KIND recently partnered with the United Nations refugee agency to target outreach to families and field questions or concerns they may have.
Karla Emeli Portillo Molina is among those parents who were deported without their children. She was separated from her 14-year-old son in 2017 and sent back to El Salvador months later without him. “I was crying. I became depressed. I didn’t want to leave without my son,” she told CNN in Spanish.
She was reunited with her son, now 18, in California this year. The expediency with which her paperwork was completed and approved for her to reunite gave her confidence in the Biden administration.
Lawsuits have stemmed from the “zero tolerance” policy and separation of families. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit in 2019 seeking damages for the toll the separations took on families, and attorneys representing families have filed separate claims.
“The statute doesn’t have an immigration status exception and the federal government often settles lawsuits whether person is a citizen or non-citizen,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, adding that migrants can legally apply for asylum either at or between ports of entry at the US-Mexico border.
“Harm is harm. And Congress is clear you can’t brutalize someone and then say, ‘Well, they were here illegally.’ The fact is these were asylum seekers,” he told reporters Thursday, noting that there’s no settlement deal on the table right now.
The Biden administration’s task force, meanwhile, has made some inroads, reunifying 60 families, with more anticipated.
“Establishing trust with families who were intentionally and cruelly separated under the prior administration’s Zero-Tolerance policy is a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security, and is essential to the effort to reunify those families,” a Homeland Security spokesperson said in a statement.
“DHS recognizes the intense trauma these families have experienced, and is working closely with non-governmental organizations to take this trauma into account in the reunification process,” the spokesperson said, adding that Mayorkas has previously met with families separated at the border under the last administration.
That trauma extends to children, including Angie, Paz’s daughter.
“She doesn’t play like she used to,” he told CNN in Spanish. “Now, she’s worried with adult problems.”