The Biden administration reached a settlement Monday in a class-action suit filed against the federal government in 2018 over the separation of families at the southwest border between 2017 and 2021.
The Justice Department (DOJ) announced its proposed settlement agreement, which will codify and strictly limit the cases in which federal officials can separate families in immigration proceedings.
“The practice of separating families at the southwest border was shameful,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
“This agreement will facilitate the reunification of separated families and provide them with critical services to aid in their recovery.”
Under the settlement, family separations will essentially be banned for the next eight years, with exceptions for national security, safety of the child, medical emergencies and some criminal warrants.
The settlement will also provide mental health, medical and housing assistance to affected families, as well as legal immigration services.
“This agreement helps family members reunify with their loved ones in the United States and receive services to help them address the trauma they have suffered,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
The agreement will also allow eligible family members to remain in the United States.
“As part of the agreement, the government has agreed to extend the ongoing parole processes for class members that allow them to reunify with their separated parent or legal guardian or child in the United States. The settlement will also give certain additional family members an opportunity to live with the unified parent or legal guardian and child in the United States,” an administration official said.
The plaintiffs had sought financial compensation from the government, but the Biden administration has resisted that claim, which is not part of the settlement agreed to Monday.
“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. 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,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and lead attorney in the lawsuit.
The settlement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California before going into effect.
Administration officials lauded the agreement between the government and plaintiffs in the case known as Ms. L, while censuring the Trump administration for its zero-tolerance policy that led to family separations.
The Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services have been leading the effort to reunify families separated by officials in 2017.
“The settlement agreed upon today is the culmination of three years of negotiation efforts and is a key milestone and the efforts of the DHS-led family reunification task force,” a senior administration official told reporters on a call Monday.
“It reflects the Biden-Harris administration’s unwavering commitment to reunify families who suffered because of the prior administration’s cruel and inhumane policy and our steadfast adherence to our nation’s most dearly held values.”
Former President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy was spearheaded by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions early in the Trump presidency, but it was blocked by courts amid widespread condemnation of the forced family separations.
Under Sessions’s vision, adult migrants — including asylum seekers — who crossed the border without permission were criminally prosecuted and forcibly separated from any minors they were accompanying.
The agreement has the dual purpose of setting bureaucratic guardrails against any future administration’s potential attempts to recreate the Trump-era policy and to speed up the reunification of families.
“There are still many families that remain separated. We have been working to conduct outreach and inform the remaining families of the options that they have and the services available to them. So far, we’ve contacted approximately 1,300 families,” an administration official said.
“We’re hopeful that with this agreement going forward that the word will get out and we’ll be able to reach more families and begin that reunification process.”
Among the 4,000 children identified by the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human services were 290 U.S. citizen children separated from their parents who had not previously been identified.
But not all families have come forward to request reunification, and federal officials are allowing individuals to set the pace.
The settlement comes after years of negotiations backed by civil society groups ranging from human rights advocates to medical organizations.
“We also recognize the important work of non-governmental organizations that have stood by the families and continue to support their reunification,” Mayorkas said.
“Our partnership is unified in condemning the cruelty of the past. The Department of Homeland Security has taken steps to ensure that the prior practice of separating families does not happen again, and we are continuing the work of reuniting children with their parents.”
Source: The Hill