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GOP would amend defense bill to block immigration settlements

Amendment looks to bar $450,000 settlement payments

A woman holds an anti-zero tolerance policy sign at the Families Belong Together protest outside of the White House on June 30, 2018.
A woman holds an anti-zero tolerance policy sign at the Families Belong Together protest outside of the White House on June 30, 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Dozens of Senate Republicans have introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill that would block the Biden administration from making settlement payments to migrant families separated under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

The amendment, introduced Nov. 3, would bar the use of federal funds to make $450,000 settlement payments to people affected by the Trump administration’s policy, which separated migrant children from their families in an effort to dissuade future immigration. The plan for the potential settlements was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

“The Biden administration is in complete denial of the crisis their policies have created at our border,” amendment sponsor Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said in a statement. “Offering money to those who break the law will only create a magnet for more illegal immigration.”

When asked about the possible payments on Nov. 3, President Joe Biden said, “That’s not gonna happen.”

However, the White House walked back his comments the next day. The Biden administration has long pledged action to aid thousands of families separated under the Trump administration. Weeks after taking office, Biden created a task force responsible for reuniting children and their families.

“If it saves taxpayer dollars and puts the disastrous history of the previous administration’s use of zero tolerance and family separation behind us, the President is perfectly comfortable with the Department of Justice settling with the individuals and families who are currently in litigation with the U.S. government,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Nov. 4.

According to a progress report released in June, 5,636 migrant children were separated from their parents between July 2017 and President Donald Trump’s departure from office in January. That includes 3,913 children separated under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy to refer all adults who crossed the border without authorization, a misdemeanor, for criminal prosecution.

Several government agencies are working to resolve ongoing lawsuits alleging the zero-tolerance policy subjected children to “lasting psychological trauma,” the Journal reported. The payments would come as part of a settlement agreement involving some of the families.

Republicans see the possible plan as the latest development in a misguided Biden administration immigration policy. Fiscal 2021 was the busiest year at the border since the U.S. began recording crossings, according to data released last month, with border agents logging more than 1.73 million encounters with migrants at the southwest border.

“Giving out potentially billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to people who broke federal law to enter the country is outrageous and an insult to the American people,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., didn’t immediately return requests for comment. But Armed Services ranking member James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., endorsed the effort, saying he “vehemently” opposes the potential payments. 

“I’m open to any and all legislative options to ensure that an approximate $1 billion of taxpayer dollars does not go to illegal immigrants,” he said.

Reed and Inhofe will manage the defense authorization bill when it is brought up for Senate debate.

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