By Anna Giaritelli, Homeland Security Reporter
The Biden administration is reportedly considering paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars to migrant families separated at the southern border during the Trump administration, about $1 billion in total.
Officials from the departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Justice have proposed paying each person $450,000, or nearly $1 million per two-person family, to settle claims about the lasting traumatic and psychological effects of being torn apart as a result of former President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday afternoon.
The payments are in response to lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the policy, which was rolled out nationwide in April 2018 and shuttered in June 2018.
Approximately 5,500 children were separated at the border and sent to HHS facilities while their parents were referred for prosecution for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Families could not be detained through those legal proceedings, prompting the separations.
The amount paid out to each family would depend on the circumstances of their separation. Settlement talks are expected to conclude by the end of November, with more than 940 claims and multiple lawsuits filed.
One DHS attorney involved in the settlement talks lamented in a conference call that migrant families could receive more money than the families of people killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Former acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, who oversaw the department after the zero-tolerance policy was rescinded, criticized the plan in a statement issued Thursday.
“There are no limits to what this Administration will do. Everything they have touched re: border security / immigration is wrong for America. But this may be at the top of the list,” Wolf wrote on Twitter.
“If this were to happen, the level of anger & hatred Americans would feel for their own government would be unprecedented. The act of stealing that level of taxpayer dollars from Americans citizens [sic] and giving them to lawbreaking illegal immigrants would set off a powder keg,” Rep. Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican, wrote on Twitter.
The Trump White House in 2019 reportedly blocked a Justice Department deal to cover the costs of mental health services for the same 5,400 children. Then-White House senior adviser Stephen Miller advised the Office of White House Counsel against settling a federal lawsuit over government-funded counseling and other services.
A DOJ audit released earlier this year concluded Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein advanced the plan knowing it would cause thousands of children to separate from their parents.
The administration rolled out a pilot program in 2017, which Sessions concluded “worked,” despite pushback from federal prosecutors, immigration judges, and officials who said they could not hear adults’ cases within the 20 days they were legally capped at holding children with their parents. Sessions pushed the policy in internal discussions in mid-2017, as the number of people encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border began to rise. He argued that an “illegal alien should not get a free pass just because he or she crosses the border illegally with a child.”
The zero-tolerance policy rolled out in April 2018, when Session announced the DHS would refer for prosecution all adults who illegally crossed the southern border in an attempt to deter more people from coming, in light of the increased migration of Central Americans.
The Biden administration in January rescinded the Trump-era policy through a memo issued by the DOJ even though the policy had not been enforced since the summer of 2018. With the change, the new administration aimed to signal it was doing away with Trump’s tough tone toward immigrants and moving toward considering prosecutions on a case-by-case basis. The policy, which says all adults should be referred for prosecution, has technically remained on the books, even though Border Patrol has not done so for the hundreds of thousands of families who have illegally crossed the border this past year.