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Guatemalan migrants turn themselves over to U.S. authorities

A girl looks on as migrants from Guatemala remove their shoelaces after turning themselves over to authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border on May 12, 2021 in Yuma, Arizona. (Photo: Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images)

'Act of Cowardice': Biden Pulls Out of Negotiations Over Compensation for Separated Families

"We will never forget who takes action to help these families—and who turns their backs on them," said a lawyer for the parents and children.

Julia Conley

Human rights advocates were incensed Thursday after lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice informed representatives for hundreds of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border that they were walking away from talks over compensating the families, as President Joe Biden had promised.

Instead of settling more than 900 claims, the administration signaled it will go to court to determine what compensation is owed to the families, many of whom were forcibly separated for several months by the Trump administration under its so-called "zero tolerance" anti-immigration policy.

Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, who is serving as the lead counsel for the families, said the administration's decision to defend the policy in court was "shocking."

"Candidate Biden promised to help these children and families," tweeted the ACLU. "But today, President Biden is shamefully playing politics with their lives and futures. We will never forget who takes action to help these families—and who turns their backs on them."

Critics tied the administration's decision to pull out of the negotiations to right-wing politicians' and commentators' condemnation of leaked reports that said families could receive up to $450,000 each.

After the information was leaked, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Biden planned to "literally make millionaires out of" the families and Fox News spent weeks focusing on the reported payments.

Asked about the payments by Fox News in November, the president said the reports of the amount were "garbage."

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro called the decision to terminate the talks "truly an act of cowardice."

"All because a Fox reporter scared them out of doing the right thing," tweeted Castro. "We have to be bigger than this."

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said the DOJ's decision to defend the policy in court was "beyond shameful," noting that lasting trauma was inflicted on an estimated 5,500 families who were separated by the U.S. government.

Kathryn Hampton, deputy director of PHR, said the group "has documented the profound psychological harms and trauma endured by survivors of family separation, which include PTSD, depression, and anxiety that persist to this day. In all of the cases we analyzed, the Trump administration's forced family separations constituted torture and temporary enforced disappearance."

"Instead of bowing to right-wing ideologues, the Biden administration should pursue justice and accountability for the deeply traumatized children and parents."

"Instead of bowing to right-wing ideologues, the Biden administration should pursue justice and accountability for the deeply traumatized children and parents who endured these atrocious acts perpetrated by the United States government," Hampton said. "The survivors deserve transformative reparations and recompense—including but not limited to financial settlements—which would offer a measure of justice in the wake of this disgraceful chapter of American history."

The Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy targeted undocumented immigrants who crossed the southern U.S. border and who requested asylum at ports of entry. The practice included forcibly separating parents and guardians from their children, including some who were just a few months old, and was condemned by human rights experts, who said the U.S. government violated international law.

The families affected, most of whom have been reunited, are now coping with the aftermath of the separations, with children exhibiting symptoms of trauma including anger, nightmares, digestive issues, and withdrawal. Legal filings allege sexual abuse in some detention centers where children were held.

The administration's withdrawal from negotiations with the families is an "absolute disgrace," journalist Adam Serwer of The Atlantic said.

Brian Tashman, an immigrant rights campaigner at the ACLU, said the administration is operating on "pure delusion" and the belief that "Fox News and the GOP will stop attacking them" if it caves to right-wing talking points about immigration and asylum seekers.

"Biden got elected with a promise to show moral leadership, 'restore the soul of the country,' and right the wrongs of Trump's cruel policy of family separation," said Tashman. "Now his administration is caving to Fox News and GOP attacks on the settlement negotiations with separated families."

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