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Biden should compensate families separated at the border

How much does America owe these families?

Reunited after months apart, Milka Pablo holds her daughter Darly Coronado, 3, as they wait for a bus in Phoenix in 2018.VICTOR J. BLUE/NYT

The news last week that the Biden administration is in talks to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to families who were forcibly separated at the US-Mexico border, under President Donald Trump’s infamous “zero-tolerance” policy, should be applauded.

Now the question — which already has conservatives’ hair on fire — is, how much does America owe these families?

Roughly 5,500 children were separated from their families in 2017 and 2018, according to figures from the US Department of Homeland Security. “There is no question that the Biden administration is doing the right thing by providing meaningful monetary compensation, given that the US government deliberately brutalized these families, including babies and toddlers,” Lee Gelernt told The New York Times. Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigrant rights project, has led the legal effort to reunite families and filed a class-action lawsuit seeking damages over the policy.

A similar suit was filed in Boston first, which estimated potential monetary compensation at $250,000 per individual in a filing earlier this year. While the size of the financial settlement per class member is still under discussion, it was reported last week that government officials are considering $450,000 per person, with some families potentially receiving $1 million each.


“The conduct at issue in this case represents deliberate, calculated, and illegal government-sponsored cruelty,” said Joe Cacace, an attorney with Todd & Weld, which represents children separated from their families. “We are pleased that the Biden administration recognizes the severity of this conduct and is taking these claims seriously.” Cacace declined to comment on any ongoing settlement discussions.

The case for compensating these migrant families is clear. Trump’s zero-tolerance policy was intended to act as a mechanism to deter other migrants from attempting to seek asylum at the border. The cruelty was always the point. But Trump officials misled the public and Congress about it. And the federal agencies involved did not adequately keep track of separations, so reuniting families had not been a key consideration in the first place, according to a report from the US Department of Homeland Security inspector general.


President Biden promised to undo Trump’s cruel immigration policies. But during his presidency, Biden has not always practiced what he preached while he was campaigning. Indeed, his moves on immigration policy have felt almost capricious. For instance, Biden refuses to fully rescind Title 42 — the border policy enacted during the coronavirus pandemic that has allowed government officials to speciously cite the public health emergency as a reason to prevent migrants from seeking asylum — and resisted for months lifting the record low refugee cap instituted by Trump.

But paying families for the harm inflicted is the least the US government should do. Physicians for Human Rights, a nonprofit group, released a report last year on the “persistent psychological effects of family separation.” Medical experts likened it to torture, which is a case that legal experts have made as well. It wasn’t just the act of forced separation, but also what some parents were reportedly told (or not) after the fact: “You’ll never see your child again.” Almost all the parents the doctors interviewed said that federal authorities didn’t give them any explanation of why they were being separated from their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics called the federal policy “child abuse.”


The political backlash has been harsh. Republicans in Congress are already gearing up to fight Biden on any dollar amount going to migrant families. US Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said it’s unacceptable to use taxpayers’ dollars to pay anything to people who break laws. US Senator Steve Daines of Montana called the news report of the payout “insane” and said he’d introduce a measure to block it.

Biden should not cower under Republicans’ threats. Whether the final figure is $50,000 or $450,000 per separated family member is beside the point, as long as economic compensation is granted to these families. Ultimately, the horrific trauma inflicted on parents and children who were separated is lasting and has long-term consequences; no amount of money can erase it. But it’s crucial to create an economic-justice precedent so that future presidents never again consider enacting this harmful and cruel policy.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.