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U.S. ends talks over compensation for families separated under Trump

DHS seeks public input to avoid family separation
DHS seeks public input to avoid family separation at the border 05:46

The U.S. government ended negotiations over monetary compensation for migrant families who were separated near the southern border during the Trump administration, the Justice Department and lawyers representing the families said Thursday.

The families' lawyers said Justice Department attorneys informed them that the government would no longer work with them to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of parents and children seeking damages over the border separations. 

Thursday's decision by the Biden administration, which has forcefully denounced the Trump-era separations, comes after Republican lawmakers expressed outrage over reports that some families could have received hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of a potential settlement.

"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," Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represents separated families, told CBS News.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is leading a task force to reunite some migrant families who remain separated, directed questions about the talks' collapse to the Justice Department.

"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," the Justice Department said in a statement.  

Nonprofit lawyers have argued the families are eligible for monetary damages because of the psychological trauma caused by the separations. A recent qualitative study by a group of clinicians found that separated families showed signs of severe psychological distress.

"Families should be consulted regarding the most appropriate means of reparation, including but not limited to a formal apology by the U.S. government, a pathway to permanent legal residence, monetary damages and prosecution of the officials who implemented this policy," the clinicians wrote in their report.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration discussed offering migrant families who had been separated $450,000 in compensation per person as part of negotiations to establish a framework to settle more than a dozen cases, a person familiar with the talks told CBS News.

The $450,000 amount, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal in October, was one of several figures considered during the talks and was never fully approved, the person said. 

APTOPIX Immigration Family Separation
David Xol-Cholom of Guatemala hugs his son Byron at Los Angeles International Airport as they reunite after being separated for about a year and a half during the Trump administration's wide-scale separation of immigrant families, on Wednesday, January 22, 2020. Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

Lawyers representing the families seeking damages said they will now return to court to try to get relief for their clients. 

"We are extremely disappointed that the negotiations have terminated and that the administration is walking away from its campaign promise to provide families with some measure of justice," Trina Realmuto, a lawyer with the National Immigration Litigation Alliance, told CBS News. "We will be moving forward with our litigation."

After the potential compensations were reported publicly, Republicans urged the Biden administration to refrain from making the payments, arguing that they would incentivize illegal immigration. Lawmakers even introduced bills to thwart the potential settlements. 

"It's plain unacceptable to consider payments of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to people who violated our laws," Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said in a November statement.

The criticism from Republicans appeared to affect the administration's plans. During a press conference in early November, President Biden called the reports about the potential payments "garbage."

"$450,000 per person? Is that what you're saying?" Mr. Biden said. "That's not going to happen."

The White House then issued a clarification, saying the president was "perfectly comfortable with the Department of Justice settling with the individuals and families" if it saved taxpayer money and put "the disastrous history of the previous administration's use of zero tolerance and family separation behind us."

The Trump administration separated more than 5,000 migrant children from their parents until a court ruling and public outcry forced officials to abandon the mass separations in the summer of 2018. Hundreds of families were subsequently reunited under a court order. But many parents were deported without their children.

Soon after taking office, Mr. Biden set up a task force to reunite families who remained separated. So far, the task force has facilitated the U.S.-based reunifications of 86 families and has identified more than 300 children who are eligible to be reunited with their parents, according to DHS figures.

"The Task Force will continue its day-to-day operations and remains focused on reunifications," DHS said in a statement Thursday.

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