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Families forcibly separated at the border will not be financially compensated

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Department of Justice has broken off negotiations to pay monetary damages to families that were forcibly separated at the border during the Trump administration. That's according to a lawyer at the ACLU, which has been involved in the settlement talks. Those negotiations became a political liability for the Biden administration after some of the dollar figures under discussion leaked to the press. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration, and he joins us now. Joel, first just a status update - what's going on with the negotiations?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, you know, as you said, these are negotiations regarding the families that were separated under the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy while they were seeking asylum in the U.S., and the government had no clear plan to reunite them. Some of these families are still separated to this day. Many say they're still suffering the effects of that forcible separation. And dozens and dozens of them had brought claims, seeking monetary damages from the government. These talks were aimed at settling those claims, but now the Justice Department has walked away from those talks.

CORNISH: Why did they fall apart?

ROSE: Well, the talks had been proceeding quietly behind closed doors until October, when the Wall Street Journal broke a story that the financial compensation amounts could reach up to $450,000 per person in some cases. You know, the lawyers involved in the negotiations said that settlement amounts for most families would be way lower than that. But once the number was out there, it generated a lot of outrage among Republicans and conservative media in particular, who tried to link the issue to the soaring number of arrests at the southern border, you know, by arguing that giving big cash settlements to migrant families would encourage more illegal immigration. Now, the Biden administration and the president himself were asked about this a lot, and you could see, you know, clearly this was going to be an election year issue for them.

CORNISH: What's been the reaction to all of this, at least so far?

ROSE: Lawyers for the separated families are deeply disappointed by this move. I talked today with Lee Gelernt at the ACLU, who is one of the lead negotiators, who pointed out that there was bipartisan criticism of this family separation policy back in 2018 and that Biden himself has called it a moral and national shame. Here's Lee.

LEE GELERNT: The president should have stood up, reminded people what happened to these children and said, we have a moral obligation as a country to fix this and not let partisan politics interfere with helping these young children. History will not judge this decision kindly.

ROSE: The Justice Department put out a statement today that said the parties have been unable to reach a settlement, but, quote, "We remain committed to engaging with the plaintiffs and to bringing justice to the victims of this abhorrent policy," unquote.

CORNISH: What's the next step in this process?

ROSE: Well, the Department of Justice will now have to defend many, many lawsuits brought by families seeking monetary damages likely. And in the end, immigrant advocates say the government could easily wind up spending even more money fighting all these cases than if it had, you know, just reached a settlement. And now the Biden administration will have to literally defend the Trump administration's policy in court. Meanwhile, the administration is working to reunite families that are still separated, and it is still in negotiations with the ACLU over some other issues, including the possibility of legal status for separated families. Those talks will continue, but, you know, the ACLU says this will not make them any easier.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Thanks for this reporting.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.