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Biden administration exits talks over compensating families separated at border

NBC News previously reported that the administration had been in talks to offer separated migrant parents and children hundreds of thousands of dollars.
U.S. Border Patrol agents take a father and son from Honduras into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, near Mission, Texas. The asylum seekers were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center for possible separati
U.S. Border Patrol agents take a man and his son from Honduras into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border near Mission, Texas, on June 12, 2018. The asylum-seekers were sent to a Customs and Border Protection processing center for possible separation.John Moore / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration walked away from negotiations to financially compensate families the Trump administration separated at the border, three lawyers for the families said Thursday.

"There's no explanation for not settling these cases other than the Biden administration is unwilling to use literally any political capital to help the young children deliberately abused by our government," said Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gelernt said the Biden administration "will now be in court not just defending the United States but also the individual federal officials responsible for family separation." The families had been separated at the border by the Trump administration.

NBC News has reported that the administration had been in talks to offer separated migrant parents and children hundreds of thousands of dollars per person.

The lawyers for the migrants represented them in a number of cases that have claimed that the families were harmed when they were forcibly separated.

In a statement, the Justice Department said, "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."

More than 5,600 children were separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy and a pilot program that preceded it. Physicians for Human Rights said the separations met the United Nations' definition of "torture," and the American Academy of Pediatrics said they amounted to "government-sanctioned child abuse." President Joe Biden, as a candidate, said the policy was "criminal" in the final 2020 presidential debate.

The Biden administration formally ended the "zero tolerance" program this year, but as of late October, more than 1,000 families were estimated to still be separated, the White House said at the time. In many cases, the parents were deported back to their home countries while their children remained in the U.S. And according to court records, more than 200 parents of separated children still have not been found.

Two people with knowledge of the negotiations said the talks broke down after details of a proposed agreement, which the Biden administration had submitted to lawyers in writing, were leaked to The Wall Street Journal in late October.

Asked at the time about the report, which said separated people could get $450,000 apiece, Biden pushed back.

"It's not true," Biden said. "That's not going to happen."

Within days, the Justice Department rescinded its offer, said the sources with knowledge of the negotiations.

Biden later walked back his comments at a news conference, signaling support for a settlement.

"If, in fact, because of the outrageous behavior of the last administration, you were coming across the border, whether it was legal or illegal, and you lost your child — you lost your child, it's gone — you deserve some kind of compensation, no matter what the circumstance," he said. "What that will be I have no idea. I have no idea."

Diana Reiter of Arnold & Porter, one of the lawyers leading the negotiations, said that in the absence of a settlement, her clients would try to bring their cases to trial, potentially forcing the Biden administration to defend Trump administration officials responsible for the separations.

"We are profoundly disappointed that this administration has walked away from its campaign promise to provide some measure of justice to these families and instead intends to defend the horrific family separation policy in court," she said. "We look forward to proceeding with our litigation and have confidence in the judicial process."

The leak of the settlement agreement put families in danger, lawyers say, by making them targets for kidnapping and other crimes.

A source with knowledge of the negotiations said, "It's actually harmed them more."