US government reaches settlement that bars it from separating families at the border for eight years

Migrants affected by Trump’s zero-tolerance policy will receive benefits such as temporary work permits, housing assistance for up to a year and psychological help

Luis Pablo Beauregard

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Migrantes caminan hacia el muro fronterizo luego de cruzar la frontera en El Paso, Texas
Asylum seekers approach the US-Mexico border in El Paso in April 2022.José Luis González (REUTERS)

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Monday a court settlement with migrant families who were separated at the border during the Donald Trump administration. The deal, which must still be approved by a San Diego district court, offers benefits to those who were victims of the former president’s policies and prevents the U.S. government from implementing similar measures in the next eight years. If approved, the settlement would temporarily shield immigrants from “zero tolerance” policies, especially if Trump returns to the White House in January 2025 after next year’s elections.

The deal will benefit between 4,500 and 5,000 minors and their parents, who were separated by the policies devised by Stephen Miller, Trump’s radical border advisor. This group may receive work permits for three and five years, housing assistance for one year, legal assistance and limited medical coverage that includes psychological help to address the trauma created by the situation. As part of the settlement, the government must continue to identify separated families, finance their reunification in the United States and initiate the procedures to consider offering them asylum. The settlement does not include payments to the families or any other financial compensation.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — which filed the suit in July 2019 — explained that one of the key parts of the agreement is the government’s pledge not to implement similar policies in the future. “This settlement closes the darkest chapter of the Trump administration, but as welcomed as it is, the damage inflicted on these families will forever be tragic and irreversible,” Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, said in a statement.

“The practice of separating families at the southwest border was shameful,” said Merrick Garland, Biden’s attorney general, upon announcing the settlement, which took three years of negotiations. “This agreement will facilitate the reunification of separated families and provide them with critical services to aid in their recovery,” the official added in a statement.

Trump’s so-called “zero tolerance policy” sparked international controversy for its inhumane treatment of migrant families. U.S. authorities began implementing the policy secretly in 2018. This resulted in adult migrants being booked and processed in detention centers awaiting trial. Since their children could not be imprisoned, the immigration services placed them in the custody of the federal government or a family. In May of that year, the administration acknowledged that it had lost track of some 1,500 undocumented minors. A district court issued an injunction in June 2018 to stop the zero tolerance policy. Faced with criticism, Trump issued an executive order to end it, but migrant families remained separated.

The ACLU’s first lawsuit claimed that some 900 minors had been separated from their parents due to the former Republican president’s policies. But the number of families affected has risen since then. When President Joe Biden came to power in January 2021, he eliminated the Trump policy and created a task force to locate and reunite separated families. According to the Department of Homeland Security, some 3,881 minors were separated from their parents between 2017 and 2021.

“It is our intent to do whatever we can to make sure that the cruelty of the past is not repeated in the future. We set forth procedures through this settlement agreement to advance that effort,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told The Associated Press.

About 74% of families have been reunited. Some 2,100 cases were resolved before Biden became president. The working group created by the Biden administration has reunited around 750 children with their families. Another 85 are in the process of being reunited. The task group pointed out that at least 290 minors who were victims of Trump’s zero tolerance policy had American citizenship.

Initially, the Biden government kept open the possibility of compensating victims of the family separation policy with up to $450,000. “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 deserve some kind of compensation, no matter what the circumstance,” the president said in November 2021. The initiative was criticized internally, which led the White House to backtrack on the proposal. The administration was forced to litigate hundreds of cases individually. These cases were resolved on Monday with a promise not to repeat the policy in the future. It remains to be seen whether Trump will follow through if he returns to power.

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