Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
Right now, federal agencies are negotiating a possible settlement with migrant families that could provide compensation for separating children from their parents in 2018 under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. And conservatives are not having it.
Since The Wall Street Journal reported last month that settlements with the families could reach $450,000 per person, and the total buyout could be $1 billion or more, Republican lawmakers have been in an uproar. On Fox News, former Vice President Mike Pence blasted such a plan as “totally unacceptable,” while Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama condemned the idea as “abhorrent and borderline evil.”
Between 2017 and 2018, about 5,600 families were separated under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of some of the families in 2019, alleging constitutional and civil rights violations. It is these negotiations that are ongoing.
Whatever the final amount, the victims of family separations deserve compensation. Both policy and historical precedent support paying a financial settlement to those affected by the horrific practice. It is the right thing to do for the migrant families who will suffer the consequences of the separations for the rest of their lives.
Certainly, the victims of family separations suffered immense trauma. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that such separations were “child abuse,” while Physicians for Human Rights called it “torture.” Children were detained in punitive conditions, often thousands of miles from their parents. Some children, alone in government care or in foster homes, allegedly experienced physical and sexual abuse.
These outcomes were known to the administration. Trump even said the family separations were intended to serve as a deterrent for unauthorized migration. A former deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement told a Senate committee that he warned officials about the devastating consequences of family separations, but the Trump administration went ahead with the policy anyway.
Providing these families with compensation would be a public acknowledgment that the US government harmed them. The money would enable families to access the health and psychological care that they and their children will need in the years ahead. It would serve as a warning to future administrations that such a policy should never be pursued again.
The government has provided reparations to certain groups in the past. In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which paid out $20,000 to Japanese Americans interned in the camps during World War II. The government also paid out moneys to members of Alaska’s Aleut community, who were forcibly relocated during the same war. Similar actions have occurred at the local level, too. In 1994, Florida approved over $2 million settlement for Black victims of a 1923 racial massacre, while, in 2016, Chicago paid more than $5 million to police torture victims.
One difference in these cases is that restitution was made decades after the harm was inflicted, meaning that some victims never lived to receive settlements. With family separation victims, the government can act now, when compensation can make the most difference in migrant families’ lives.
President Joe Biden has sent mixed messages about settlements for migrant families. He called reports of the $450,000 proposal “garbage” and said, “That’s not going to happen.” A White House spokesperson later walked back his comments, saying the President would be “perfectly comfortable” with a settlement for a lower amount. But that shouldn’t be Biden’s decision to make. The settlements are being negotiated by the ACLU and the federal agencies. The President should respect their expertise and let the negotiations proceed without inserting himself into them.
Of course, conservative media has seized on this issue, claiming that the US is rewarding “illegal immigrants” for coming to this country without authorization. Yet any reparations for migrants would be due to the fact that the US government separated parents and children. These migrants were refugees and asylum-seekers, exercising their legal rights to humanitarian relief. And consider that no amount of money can undo the pain and suffering these families went through, or give parents back the time they lost with their children.
If conservatives are outraged by such payouts of taxpayer money, they should be angry at the administration that committed these abuses, not its victims.
As Americans prepare to gather for the holidays, it is worth reflecting on the value of family, regardless of immigration status. Vulnerable parents and children were harmed by the previous administration, and the government now has the opportunity to make restitution. Migrants deserve economic compensation for the horror of family separations.