No settlement for separated migrant families amid criticism

FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2021 file photo, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington. The Biden administration on Monday renewed efforts to shield hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to the United States as young children from deportation, the latest maneuver in a long-running drama over the policy's legality. Mayorkas called again on Monday for Congress to act swiftly to provide “the legal status they need and deserve.” He said legislation should be enacted through spending negotiations, a tactic that suffered a potentially critical blow this month when the Senate parliamentarian prohibited it. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A lawyer for migrant families negotiating a settlement agreement with the U.S. government pushed back at increasing criticism of a proposal to pay compensation to them.

Attorney Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union would not discuss details of the talks nor confirm a previously reported settlement proposal of several hundred thousand dollars to each affected person. He did, however, hold out the possibility of a trial, featuring parents separated from children as young as six months as witnesses, if there’s no agreement to end the litigation.

“All I can say is there’s no deal on the table and we have no timeframe necessarily,” Gelernt said in a conference call with reporters.

The settlement talks, which would typically be private until an agreement is finalized, have instead become a new line of attack for Biden administration critics seeking to tie the issue to the increasing number of illegal immigrants seeking to cross the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year. Republicans grilled Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about it when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“As you can imagine, many Americans think it’s a pretty outrageous idea to offer massive taxpayer-funded payments to illegal immigrants who broke our laws, particularly in the middle of a record-shattering border crisis that this administration has created,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said at the hearing.

Mayorkas referred questions from the senators to the Department of Justice, which is handling the negotiations, though at one point he disputed the suggestion that a settlement would encourage future migrants to seek to come to the U.S.

About 5,500 children were forcibly removed from their parents under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy in which parents were separated from their children as the administration sought to discourage people from crossing the border.

Trump halted the practice in June 2018 before a judge ordered an end to the program in response to a lawsuit that had been filed by the ACLU.

The settlement talks had been going on 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 the figure had been under consideration.

In addition to the payment, settlement talks have also included discussion of granting the families legal U.S. residency and providing counseling services.

Asked about the amount on Nov. 3, Biden appeared to misunderstand the question and said a payment of about $450,000 per person was “not going to happen.” He later said he supported a settlement, without specifying an amount.

“If, in fact, because of the outrageous behavior of the last administration, you coming across the border, whether it was legally or illegally, and you lost your child — You lost your child. It’s gone — you deserve some kind of compensation, no matter what the circumstance,” Biden said. “What that will be I have no idea. I have no idea.”