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Verdicts & Settlements

Federal Government Settles Trump-era Family Separations Lawsuit

— October 17, 2023

The settlement includes a promise from the U.S. government not to resume any policy of separating migrant families for at least another eight years.

The federal government has agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging that immigration officials wrongfully separated families along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017 and 2018.

According to National Public Radio, the class-action settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union was filed in a San Diego-based court earlier this week.

During the Trump administration, an estimated 5,000 families crossing into the United States were separated, with children and parents often housed in different units or separate facilities. Images of children inside cages quickly went viral, stoking outrage on both sides of the border.

While former President Donald Trump tried to defend his so-called “zero-tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration, the administration was—eventually—forced to cut its losses and halt the program.

The settlement with the A.C.L.U., if approved, would prohibit immigration agencies from imposing any type of family separation policy for at least eight years.

In a statement, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the White House has no plans to recall Trump’s failed immigration policies.

“It is vital that we adhere to our country’s fundamental values, and we will not deviate from that,” Mayorkas told N.P.R.

Trump, meanwhile, has refused to take any concrete position on the issue, avoiding questions as to what shape immigration policy could take if he is re-elected in 2024.

Former President Trump. Image via Flickr/user: Gage Skidmore. (CCA-BY-2.0)

“If a family hears that they’re going to be separated, they love their family, they don’t come,” Trump said in May. “I know it sounds harsh.”

The settlement also stipulates that families who were previously separated will be granted interviews with asylum officers, as well as provisional work authorization and housing benefits.

“I have met with reunited families,” Mayorkas said, explaining that the U.S. has also decided to extend mental health resources to affected immigrants. “The trauma does not end with reunification. There is a great deal of healing needed. And we are committed to doing that which is necessary to restoring these individuals, their health and well-being.”

N.P.R. notes that, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to remediate immigration policy, there are still an estimated 1,000 children who have yet to be reunited with their parents. Many of them are still in the United States, living with relatives or family friends.

Lee Gelernt, the A.C.L.U.’s lead counsel in the class action, said that the Trump administration is largely to blame for the government’s failure to bring families back together.

“The court said it appears that the Trump administration tracked property more diligently than they tracked the whereabouts of little children,” Gelernt said. “We have been searching for years for these families.”

Gelernt said that, while the settlement has obvious inadequacies, it is—at the very least—an “essential beginning” for migrants.

“When we brought this lawsuit, no one thought it would involve thousands of children, take us to so many countries searching for families, or last for years,” Gelernt said. “While no one would ever claim that this settlement can wholly fix the harm intentionally caused to these little children, it is an essential beginning.”

The settlement, adds N.P.R., does not include any compensation for separated families.


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