Following a five-year legal battle, the settlement of a class action lawsuit concerning the practice of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border has been approved, and, importantly, it bars the use of a similar policy for the next eight years.
The American Civil Liberties Union brought the lawsuit in 2018 to stop the forcible separation of children from their parents after they illegally crossed the border into the United States.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in the Southern District of California approved the settlement Friday.
"When we brought this lawsuit, no one thought it would involve thousands of children, take us to so many countries searching for families, or last for years," Lee Gelernt, the lead ACLU attorney on the case, wrote in a statement.
"While no one would ever claim that this settlement can wholly fix the harm intentionally caused to these little children, it is an essential beginning," the statement continued.
The policy resulted in immigration agents separating more than 4,000 children from their parents and only became known after audio of scores of sobbing children screaming for their parents emerged from a U.S. federal detention facility.
About 4,500-5,000 children and their parents will be covered under this settlement. The government is expected to continue to identify families that were separated.
Though news of the separations came to light in 2018, a pilot program began in 2017 in the El Paso, Texas, area.
The policy sparked widespread bipartisan outrage and eventually pushed then-President Donald Trump to sign an executive order ending the practice. Many of the parents were deported from the United States without their children, some of whom were in foster care or with relatives they had never known before.
The settlement offers resources to help families address the trauma they suffered under the policy, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an October statement.
"The Department of Homeland Security has taken steps to ensure that the prior practice of separating families does not happen again, and we are continuing the work of reuniting children with their parents," his statement said.
However, former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has said he could reinstitute the family separation policy if he's reelected.
"If a family hears that they're going to be separated — they love their family — they don't come. I know it sounds harsh," Trump said during a town hall in May.
But Gelernt, the ACLU attorney who represented the separated families, told VOA in an email that, "If a future administration tries to reinstate the family separation practice, the settlement allows us to go back to court to get an order stopping it."
The 46-page settlement does not offer money to families who were separated, but it does allow them to apply for temporary legal status for three years and a work permit. They can receive some help finding housing, and aid for initial rent payments such as first and last month’s rent. And the federal government must cover co-payments for medical and behavioral health services.
Families can also apply for asylum, even if they were denied it during their time in the U.S.
It also prohibits U.S. immigration officials from using the accusation that migrants entered the U.S. illegally as a reason to separate parents and their children. Agents at the border must prove child abuse or serious crimes before separating families and also record the charges, evidence and where each child is sent in a shared government database. Under the settlement, if families are separated, the ACLU lawyers must be informed so they can dispute the separations.
The Biden administration created a task force to continue to reunite separated families. According to a September report by the task force, 3,126 children have been reunited with their parents or legal guardians. The task force is still working with nonprofit and nongovernment organizations to reunite 1,073 children with their parents.
Of those, 81 children have no valid contact information for their parents or other relatives.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, child psychology experts, and other child welfare groups have spoken out against separating children from their parents. They say it can have long-lasting effects on children’s emotional growth and cognitive development.
The ACLU has settled hundreds of lawsuits in its 103-year history, its executive director, Anthony D. Romero, wrote in an email to the media.
"None more important than this one … but as welcomed as it is, the damage inflicted on these families will forever be tragic and irreversible," he added.