By ANITA SNOW
PHOENIX (AP) — Despite President Joe Biden’s loathing of his predecessor’s practice of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, his administration argued in federal court Tuesday that a lawsuit seeking money for five affected mothers and their children should be dismissed.
Justice Department attorney Phil MacWilliams told U.S. District Court Judge Susan R. Bolton the claims were improper and the case shouldn’t be tried. He argued that the Yuma, Arizona-based Border Patrol agents involved used their discretion to separate the families, not a policy aimed at deterring migrants arrivals.
Attorney Diana Reiter, representing the families, argued the case should go to trial because the separations were part of a bigger policy under then-President Donald Trump aimed at preventing migrants from arriving at the border. She noted that because the women were never prosecuted the separations were unnecessary.
Bolton will issue a decision in the coming weeks.
The U.S. government’s push to prevent a trial underscores the awkward position the Biden administration is now in as it grapples with its own problems managing migrant arrivals at the border.
The mothers and their children sued the U.S. government in 2019, seeking monetary compensation for the trauma they suffered the previous year when they were torn apart by the separation policy.
In 2021, the Biden administration participated quietly in settlement negotiations to end such lawsuits filed on behalf of parents and children who were forcibly separated under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. But U.S. officials withdrew from such talks in December 2021 and said it would instead defend each case in court.
The negotiations in cases involving hundreds of plaintiffs were carried out for months until The Wall Street Journal reported in October 2019 that the government was considering paying about $450,000 to each person affected by the policy. The Associated Press later confirmed that figure was discussed.
About 5,500 children were forcibly removed from their parents in 2018 under Trump as his administration sought to stop an increase in people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, including migrants who showed up to seek asylum as the law allowed. Trump halted the family separation practice later that year amid widespread outrage.
Biden’s administration since reversed some of Trump’s actions designed to keep migrants from arriving at the border, including legally.
The American Immigration Council filed suit on behalf of the mothers and their children, who are also being represented by Reiter’s firm, Arnold & Porter, as well as the National Immigrant Justice Center, National Immigration Litigation Alliance, and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin.