Republicans moved last week to block $450,000 payments to illegal immigrants who were part of family separations during the Trump administration, but they saw their first attempt quashed by Senate Democrats.
The payments are being pondered by President Biden’s task force assigned to help reunify and compensate families snared by the Trump zero-tolerance border policy, which led to thousands of family separations.
Some migrants would be in line to collect $450,000 in federal money, and the total bill could top $1 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the negotiations.
Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, proposed an amendment to cancel the payments during debate on a human trafficking bill in the Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday, saying if the government does follow through, it will spark an even bigger surge of illegal immigration.
“There is no question that this will be the news in Central America — that if you go now, you’re going to get $450,000 if you cross,” he said.
But Democrats on the committee sank the proposal, with Chairman Gary Peters, Michigan Democrat, saying Mr. Lankford’s idea would rescind Mr. Biden’s task force, leaving families without answers.
“No child should be forced to experience the trauma of needless separation from their parents,” Mr. Peters said.
Mr. Lankford’s proposal failed on a party-line 7-7 vote. It would have needed a majority to advance.
The fight is likely to be only the opening salvo.
GOP senators have announced they will try to add an amendment to the upcoming defense policy bill that would block the payments. That defense bill is one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation Congress deals with each year.
House Republicans also unveiled their bill, the Illegal Immigration Payoff Prohibition Act. It is sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock and is being co-sponsored by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican; Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan and 135 other Republican lawmakers.
“Who says crime doesn’t pay? Under Biden it apparently pays very well indeed,” Mr. McClintock said in a statement. “Congress has the power of the purse, and that’s why we must act today to stop this outrageous plan in its tracks.”
Mr. Biden on Wednesday said there were no plans for payments. He called the reports “garbage.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been leading the legal battle over the separated families, said Mr. Biden must be out of the loop.
“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,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement.
He said refusing the payments would be “abandoning a core campaign promise to do justice for the thousands of separated families.”
The family separations came out of then-President Trump’s get-tough approach to illegal border crossings by families, who were exploiting a loophole that allowed many adults who brought their children to be caught and then released into communities.
Under the zero-tolerance policy, Homeland Security and the Justice Department decided to prosecute the parents for illegal entry, a misdemeanor. That meant jailing them — and since there are no family facilities in federal jails, the children were separated and put into government-run shelters.
But the government lacked the capacity to reunite the families after the parents were released from jail, and, in many cases, parents were deported without their children.
The government is still trying to reunite some families. The Biden administration also announced plans to readmit deported parents to give them a new chance to claim asylum or make a case for being allowed to stay.
The Biden task force has already reunited 50 families, Mr. Peters said this week.