By Uriel Garcia/The Texas Tribune
The federal government will be prohibited from implementing a Trump administration immigration policy that separated children from parents who were accused of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, according to a legal settlement reached between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Biden administration on Monday.
The agreement must still be approved by a federal judge in the Southern District of California in San Diego, where the ACLU filed its class action lawsuit in 2018.
“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,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and lead attorney in the lawsuit. “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 policy that sparked a national scandal began with a pilot program in El Paso in 2017, when the Trump administration directed federal agents to criminally charge parents with illegally entering the country and separating them from their children, who were transferred to the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Publicly announced in May 2018, the policy resulted in immigration agents separating more than 4,000 children from their parents.
Before the Trump administration’s policy, immigration agents would hold families together in detention before deciding if they would get deported or released into the U.S. with court dates for their deportation hearings, when they could also request asylum. Adults traveling alone would get charged with illegal entry and have their deportations expedited.
After receiving blistering criticism over the policy, including from some Republican lawmakers, Trump signed an executive order in June 2018 ending the policy.
“Today’s agreement 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,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
If approved, the 46-page settlement agreement would be valid for eight years. It says federal immigration officials would not be able to use the illegal entry charge against parents to separate them from their children. Immigration agents must have evidence of child abuse or that the parent has committed a serious crime before separating families and document the separation in a database accessible to other government agencies. Under the settlement agreement, the families’ lawyers would also have to be notified and could challenge separations.
The proposed settlement does not provide monetary compensation, but families who were separated would qualify to enter or remain in the country legally, receive a three-year renewable work permit, plus assistance in finding housing and covering some costs such as first and last month’s rent. The federal government would also cover behavioral health services and co-payments for medical needs.
They would also be able to apply for asylum, even if they were previously denied, at any point during their stay in the U.S.
The Biden administration created a task force to continue reuniting 4,227 children who were separated from their families when the policy was being enforced. The task force said 3,126 children have been reunified with their parents or legal guardians and it is working with non-governmental organizations to reunite the remaining 1,100 children with family members, according to a federal government report.
The lawsuit is the first to reach this stage; dozens of other lawsuits seeking monetary damages have been filed by families whose children were separated from them.