Family Separations Lawsuit: US and ACLU Start Settlement Talks

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Protesters demonstrate on June 18, 2018 in Los Angeles against the separation of migrant children from their families, in front of clothes and shoes representing the children. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In a court filing late Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the federal government announced the start of settlement negotiations in the longstanding lawsuit over the forced separation of immigrant families trying to enter the United States.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, who has been representing the separated families in court for the past three years, says the government recently reached out to begin talks to conclude the litigation.

"We are welcoming any chance to talk about how to get these families reunited as quickly as possible, so we will talk to the government," he said. "Obviously our patience will run out at some point if we can't reach agreement."

The class action lawsuit began in 2018 and has been the primary mechanism for court oversight of the family separations case, Ms. L v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

According to the filing, both parties hope that the settlement agreement and the work of President Biden's family separations task force "will eventually resolve many or all of the outstanding issues in litigation" — most notably, the ongoing effort to reunite families.

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In a February conference between the two parties, attorneys for the families said they have successfully located 112 parents who were separated from their children by U.S. immigration authorities between 2017 and 2018 as part of the Trump administration's immigration enforcement policies.

Attorneys and advocates are still searching for the parents of 499 children, many of whom are believed to have been deported to Central America.

Gelernt said one critical aspect of the settlement is that Biden's task force, established in January, will continue to work independently to reunite families while negotiations with the government continue.

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Immigrant advocates have asked that Biden include some kind of permanent status for separated parents, along with mental health services, as one way of addressing the harm done. According to Gelernt, many of these issues could be addressed by the task force, but the ACLU is open to addressing them as part of the settlement negotiation as well.

So far, the task force has not made any concrete promises on what they will provide beyond reunification. Earlier this month, Alejandro Mayorkas, the newly appointed Department of Homeland Security secretary, said the government is hoping to reunite families "either here or in the country of origin," and will "explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the United States and to address the family needs."

Attorneys for the separated families are pushing for the government to act on that intention as quickly as possible.

"We've now been talking with the Biden administration for ... nearly two months, I think it's time for us to see concrete actions," Gelernt said.

In an order issued Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw agreed to stay all pending deadlines in the case at the request of the ACLU and the federal government.

The two sides plan to reach out to U.S. Magistrate Judge Mitchell Dembin to set an initial settlement conference as soon as possible, according to the filing.