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Federal judge prohibits separating migrant families at the border

In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the U.S. waited in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas, in June 2018.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP
In this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the U.S. waited in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas, in June 2018.

A federal judge in San Diego has approved a settlement prohibiting U.S. officials from separating migrant families at the border. The settlement, reached in October, was awaiting approval. It goes into effect on December 11th.

The lawsuit was filed in 2018 by the ACLU. It sued to block the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, which separated undocumented parents from their children when they attempted to cross into the United States.

Adults were sent to detention centers and minors to shelters. More than 5,000 families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were separated, with no plan for reunification. Images of children alone in detention facilities generated outrage; the youngest child separated from their family was only 6 months old at the time.

The Trump administration halted the policy. But the ACLU says around a thousand children remain separated. These children remain scattered across the U.S., living with extended relatives, family friends, or under state supervision. Lee Gelernt, the ACLU's lead counsel in this case, said the Trump administration's record-keeping was disastrous. He told NPR"it appears that the Trump administration tracked property more diligently than they tracked the whereabouts of little children," he said. "We have been searching for years for these families."

In an interview with NPR, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas signaled that the current White House has no plans to split apart families. "It is vital that we adhere to our country's fundamental values, and we will not deviate from that," he said.

Former President Donald Trump has said several times, that if elected again, he wouldn't rule out reimplementing the policy, which he said was effective in deterring immigration. "If a family hears that they're going to be separated, they love their family, they don't come," Trump said during a town hall in May. "I know it sounds harsh."

But today's settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw states that for the next eight years, crossing the border illegally will no longer be a reason to separate a family.

This settlement does not give monetary compensation. Officials ended those negotiations back in 2021, after Republican lawmakers expressed outrage, saying the amounts under consideration were too high. It does stipulate that the U.S. government will continue to pay to help reunify families.

It also offers aid to those affected by the policy: they may apply for humanitarian protection in the U.S., work permits, and housing assistance.

Mayorkas told NPR that families will be given access to mental health resources as well. "I have met with reunited families," he said. "The trauma does not end with reunification. There is a great deal of healing needed. And we are committed to doing that which is to necessary to restoring these individuals, their health and well-being."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.