Lawyers representing thousands of families separated at the southern border during the Trump administration’s overhaul have reached a settlement with the federal government that allows migrants to stay in the United States and apply for asylum, putting them on a path to permanent legal residency.
The agreement, filed Monday in federal court in San Diego, ends years of negotiations that were part of a class-action lawsuit to settle damages caused by family separations conducted in 2017 and 2018.
The policy has been a key component of the Trump administration’s efforts to curb illegal immigration. Children were systematically taken from their parents and sent to shelters and foster homes across the country, and parents were prosecuted for illegal entry.
The goal was to provide a strong deterrent to families planning to come to the United States, even those seeking asylum. In all, several thousand foreign-born children were taken from their parents. It later emerged that hundreds of US-born children crossing the border with migrant parents were also subject to the policy.
Disturbing images and audio of children being taken from their parents sparked outrage and criticism and eventually sparked a wave of lawsuits — including a class-action lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California.
About three-quarters of separated families have either been reunited or given the information they need to begin the reunification process, a senior administration official told reporters Monday.
If approved by the judge overseeing the case, the class-action settlement would allow the families to live and work legally in the United States while they await a decision on their asylum claims. Parents and children who are separated and already in the United States will be able to petition to bring immediate family members from their home countries.
“This agreement will facilitate the reunification of separated families and provide them with critical services to aid in their recovery,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement.
Families previously refused asylum will have the right to reapply, and asylum officers will be instructed by the government to take into account the trauma caused by forced separation. Families who prevail in their asylum cases — which usually take years to decide — will be eligible for green cards and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.
“Although we can never fully heal these families again, nor erase the moral stain of this heinous policy, we are delighted with the families who will receive the benefits of the settlement, and most of all with the children who have not seen their parents for years and suffering, who will have a significant opportunity to stay in the USA – in,” said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union, the lead attorney on the class action.
The settlement, negotiated by the Justice Department, now goes before Judge Dana M. Sabraw of the U.S. District Court in San Diego, who oversaw the case. The hearing is scheduled for December.
“When we started this lawsuit, no one thought it would involve thousands of children, take us to so many countries in search of families, or take years,” Mr. Gelernt said.
Parents were imprisoned for entering the country illegally, and their children as young as 6 months were sent to shelters or foster homes. Most of the separations occurred in the spring of 2018 and lasted for several weeks. But, in some cases, they extended for years because parents were deported without children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said the initiative amounted to “cruel cruelty.”
Some young children did not recognize their parents when they were reunited by US authorities, following an order issued by Judge Sabraw in June 2018. The other parents and children could not be found, delaying reunification, due to poor record-keeping by federal agencies.
The settlement largely limits future separations to cases where a parent has been abusive or has committed serious crimes, and the settlement stipulates that all separations must be documented in databases shared by federal agencies.
While many separated families have been reunited and many deported parents have returned to the United States, hundreds of families have yet to be found.
Shortly after taking office, President Biden created a task force to create a process to locate parents who have not been reunited with their children because they were deported to countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Family lawyers and government lawyers also negotiated financial compensation for the damages caused by the separations. But negotiations stalled and ultimately collapsed in October 2021, after leaks suggested the Justice Department was willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to each family.
After that disclosure, only class-action negotiations continued, and a government task force continued to work with the ACLU and advocacy groups on family reunification.
Still, some lawsuits for monetary damages are pending in federal courts, accusing the government of negligence, abuse, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Seamus Hughes and Eileen Sullivan contributed to the research.