A U.S. Border Patrol Agent escorts two asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors from Central America as others take refuge near a baseball field after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on rafts in La Joya, Texas, March 19, 2021. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

The U.S. Department of Justice has pulled out of settlement talks with migrant families who were separated at the southern border under the Trump administration and instead plans to litigate hundreds of families’ claims, according to reports.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s immigrant-rights project, served as a lead negotiator in the talks and reportedly told the Wall Street Journal the government ended settlement negotiations with families who have filed lawsuits claiming that the government subjected parents and children to lasting psychological trauma. 

The latest news comes two months after the Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration was considering issuing payments to immigrant families of around $450,000 a person, for a total payout that could cost the government more than $1 billion. Republican lawmakers and some government lawyers saw the payouts as excessive for illegal immigrants who broke the law by crossing the border, according to the report. It added that a government lawyer threatened to remove his name from the case in protest of the potential settlement offer.

In November, eleven Republican senators urged Biden to end the settlement talks.

“[R]ewarding illegal immigration with financial payments runs counter to our laws and would only serve to encourage more lawlessness at our border,” Senator Chuck Grassley and other Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote.

This week the Justice Department pulled out of negotiations.

“We are hardly naive that politics sometimes plays a role in DOJ decisions but it is shameful that it happened when the lives of little children are at stake,” Gelernt told the Wall Street Journal. “History will not look kindly on the Biden administration’s decision not to stand up for these small children.”

The separations occurred under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, which began in April 2018 under an executive order that was issued without warning to other federal agencies that would have to manage the policy, according to the Associated Press. The policy made it so all adults who illegally entered the U.S., including those with children, were referred for prosecution.

Children who entered with those adults were separated from them and placed into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The separations occurred with no process for reuniting the families, as some parents were deported. President Trump later ended the policy in an executive order on June 20, 2018 after about 5,500 children were separated from their families, according to the ACLU.

At the time, Biden initially said the report was “garbage” and later had a tense exchange with a reporter who pressed him on the issue. The president clarified that he only took issue with the number in the report.

“If in fact, because of the outrageous behavior of the last administration, you coming across the border — whether it was legal or illegal — and you lost your child,” Biden said, raising his voice and pointing his finger. “You lost your child, he’s gone, you deserve some kind of compensation no matter what the circumstances.”

He said at the time he had “no idea” what the final settlement figure would be.

At that time, American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony D. Romero told CNN that the Justice Department warned people involved in the negotiations that “the numbers reported in the press are higher than anywhere that settlement can land.”

The government had hoped to reach a settlement with the migrant families to avoid costly trials before ending the talks this week.

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