Biden Says He Cares About Separated Children. Advocates Say ‘Fucking Prove It.’

Biden Says He Cares About Separated Children. Advocates Say ‘Fucking Prove It.’ 1

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden called it “garbage.” On Thursday, he was “perfectly comfortable” with it, to a point. On Friday, it was a matter for the Department of Justice. On Saturday, it was merely a question of dimes and cents.

As the Department of Justice negotiates with attorneys representing some of the thousands of migrant families that were forcibly separated under President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, the Biden White House has struggled to articulate its stance on a financial settlement with those families.

On Oct. 28, the Wall Street Journal reported that the administration was in talks to pay as much as $450,000 in compensation to each individual affected by the separation policy—a figure that could top $1 billion in total reparations. Asked about the story several days later, Biden told reporters it was “garbage,” adding that the payments were “not going to happen.”

That answer —which was later backtracked by White House deputy principal press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre before Biden himself clarified that it was the financial figure that was “garbage” rather than the settlement itself—has sparked confusion and concern among some immigration advocates that the administration isn’t as committed to following through on its promises regarding family separation as they had hoped.

Some are now openly speculating that the administration hasn’t even made up its own mind about its stance on compensation.

“President Biden may not have been fully briefed about the actions of his very own Justice Department as it carefully deliberated and considered the crimes committed against thousands of families separated from their children as an intentional governmental policy,” Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “But if he follows through on what he said, the president is abandoning a core campaign promise to do justice for the thousands of separated families.”

Multiple leading figures in the immigrant-rights sphere told The Daily Beast that the administration seemed “confused” about whether the policy—which Biden once called “criminal” during the presidential campaign—rose to the level of meriting reparations.

“As far as advocates within the campaign, we’re all aligned on this. Family separation was a form of torture carried out in the government’s name and it must never be repeated,” said Bilal Askaryar, communications coordinator for the Women’s Refugee Commission’s #WelcomeWithDignity campaign. “As far as specifics about the settlement, the only confusion seems to be coming from within the administration.”

Other advocates see the back-and-forth over settlement talks as just another phase in the Biden administration’s fitful approach to immigration reform, in which many of the Trump administration’s most onerous policies have remained functionally in effect.

“Unfortunately, this is part and parcel with so many of Biden’s campaign promises on immigration,” said Amy Fischer, an advocacy director at Amnesty International USA. “He promised to reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees, yet he continues Trump-era policies that deny tens of thousands of asylum-seekers their human right to seek asylum and has yet to follow through on promises to separated families. We need more.”

Concerns over Biden’s commitment to enacting a humane immigration system have lingered since before the administration even began, when those who had been working on behalf of families who had been affected by “zero-tolerance” pressed the transition to commit to a pathway for legal residency for separated families. A watered-down commitment to examine potential legal status “on an individual basis,” combined with the slow pace of reunifications for those who remained separated from their children, frayed their patience further.

The Biden administration, advocates conceded, has not underplayed the damage done to children under the policy. Asked on Saturday to clarify his stance on the settlements, Biden was visibly emotional when he described what the Trump-era policy had done to children and their parents.

“If in fact, because of the outrageous behavior of the last administration, you were coming across the border, whether it was legal or illegal, and you lost your child—you lost your child, it’s gone—you deserve some kind of compensation, no matter what the circumstance,” Biden said angrily. “What that will be, I have no idea.”

But the White House’s hedging on the amount of money the government is willing to pay in reparations undercuts the severity of what was done to vulnerable children, no matter Biden’s clear stance on the policy itself, advocates say—and limits the resources they will have to address serious mental health concerns in the future.

“Actually getting the families back together is the floor, not the ceiling. There’s a very long and arduous road to healing, and that usually involves a lot of very specialized mental health services,” said Paola Luisi, co-director of Families Belong Together, a nonprofit working to help reunite children separated from their parents under Trump. “You need child developmental psychiatrists, you need folks who are specialized in sexual assault of minors, and you need folks who are culturally competent. A lot of the children are indigenous, some of these children are Spanish-dominant, others are nonverbal.”

The combination of outraged public denunciation of policies that the Biden administration later allows to fester now skirts dangerously close to “crying wolf,” said one attorney representing a family in settlement negotiations with the Department of Justice.

“You can only tell us how much you care so many times before we expect you to fucking prove it,” the attorney said.

Physicians and psychologists have warned for years that family separation, combined with the abysmal conditions in which many migrant children were held, could lead to lifelong mental and physical illness for children taken from their parents at the border.

“Family separation constituted torture and enforced disappearance, with separated children and parents experiencing acute psychological trauma like PTSD, depression, and anxiety,” said Kathryn Hampton, deputy director of the asylum program at Physicians for Human Rights. “While it’s too early to know the exact long-term effects of this policy on the families, the medical literature indicates that the psychological trauma could potentially be life-long.”

Hampton, who co-authored a harrowing report for Physicians for Human Rights on the prolonged psychological effects of family separation, cited the case of an 8-year-old boy who continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress and separation anxiety disorders more than two years after being reunited with his father.

“For the children and parents who were separated for longer periods of time—in some cases for several years without knowing where their loved ones were—the level of trauma and the long-term consequences for their development could be severe,” Hampton said. “This needs to be taken into consideration when determining settlements.

The specialized treatment necessary to undo at least some of that damage, Luisi echoed, comes at a price.

“You had kids who were potty trained, for example, before they were separated, and one of the impacts of trauma was that they sort of regressed with it. The issue at hand is that it’s a matter of finding hyper-specialized folks, right?” Luisi said. “And that’s not easy.”

Conservative media outlets, led by Peter Doocy, the White House correspondent for Fox News, have made hay of the idea that the Biden administration “give taxpayer money to people who broke federal law to get here,” as Doocy put it in a question to Jean-Pierre on Friday. Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a letter declaring that any settlements to undocumented immigrants “because they violated the law” are both wrong and “offensive to the American people.”

The administration has dismissed those concerns in increasingly blunt terms, with Jean-Pierre telling Doocy that the question of settlements only exists because of the Trump administration’s “cruel, inhuman, immoral policies.”

“It’s separating children from their families—18-month-olds, 2-year-olds, 5-year-olds from their families. That’s how we got here,” Jean-Pierre said. “This is what we’re trying to deal with here in this administration.”

But tough talk on the evils of the policy only goes so far. Advocates want the administration to publicly commit to a serious settlement, not just to pay for a life of treatment for the damage caused to children and their parents, but as a warning to future administrations not to violate the civil rights of children.

“Providing financial compensation is the minimum this administration can do so families can access the resources they need to heal from this trauma inflicted by the U.S. government,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “The president’s comments were inappropriate, and we trust that, given the lives at stake, his administration will continue to negotiate these cases in good faith.”