In late October, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration was preparing to offer settlements to migrant families that were separated at the border during the Trump administration. The payouts, it said, would total $450,000 each, or $1.8 million for a family of four, possibly costing $1 billion in total. No one in the administration disputed the story for six days, until Fox News’s Peter Doocy asked Biden if such a policy might encourage illegal immigration. Biden responded, “If you guys keep sending that garbage out, yeah, but it’s not true.” “So this is a garbage report?” Doocy asked. “Yeah, $450,000 per person, is that what you said? That’s not gonna happen,” Biden said.
But the next day, White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre walked back Biden’s reaction, insisting that the president is “perfectly comfortable” settling with the migrants—just not for the figure reported. And two days later, the president changed tack, citing the “outrageous behavior” of the Trump administration. “Whether [the border crossing] was legal or illegal, and you lost your child,” Biden scolded, his voice raising to a shout. “You lost your child, it’s gone—you deserve some kind of compensation, no matter what the circumstance.”
It sounds like the president has been out of the loop on the settlement talks. He’s attempting to flip the script by talking about children who died during the implementation of Trump’s family-separation policy—but that number is likely in the single digits, and it’s unclear whether the deaths were caused by the policy or by the dangerous trip over the southern border. In any case, Biden now claims that the $450,000 figure is too high, but even if he’s “perfectly comfortable” settling for, say, half that amount, that’s still close to $1 million for a family of four.
The potential settlement is just the latest component of an immigration policy that—intentionally or not—encourages illegal immigration. A new NBC News poll gave Republicans a 27-point advantage over Democrats on border security, and a new Harvard-Harris poll shows respondents moving in a hawkish direction. But the president’s record suggests that he has little regard for public opinion on the issue.
The Washington Post recently reported that ICE agents arrested just 72,000 illegal immigrants inside the U.S. last fiscal year—less than half the 2017–2019 annual average of 148,000. Border Patrol agents detained a record 1.66 million illegal immigrants, 19,000 of them wanted criminals, at the southern border for the fiscal year ending in September. An unknown number of these unlawful migrants have been spirited by bus or plane into the interior, as were many of the 15,000 Haitian migrants who amassed at the border in September. Biden also backed an immigration bill that would have provided amnesty to an estimated 20 million immigrants, even those who had arrived just weeks before the bill was drafted. The bill went nowhere, but the administration has continued to review and, in some cases, overturn Trump-era deportations. As Politico reported this summer, such a policy would be “highly unusual in American immigration law,” yet a senior official said that the administration is “eager to bring people back in who shouldn’t have been removed in the first place.”
Meantime, the flow of deadly drugs across the border has intensified. Agents seized a record 7,200 pounds of fentanyl in the first eight months of 2021. Biden halted construction of the border wall and reversed Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which required asylum seekers to wait while their claims were adjudicated. A federal judge ordered the administration to reinstate the policy in August, but officials resisted, saying late last month that they’ll find a way to end the policy one way or another.
Still, this latest incentive beggars belief. The child separation policy was a mistake, but the Trump administration was trying to address asylum abuse and the trafficking of children. Aware that families are treated more leniently at the border, smugglers have long matched minors up with their clients to exploit American laws. They also hire teenage boys to move migrants across the border because the U.S. doesn’t prosecute minors. According to the Washington Post, some child smugglers have been apprehended more than 100 times. The Washington Examiner reported in 2019 that approximately 30 percent of rapid DNA tests in a pilot program revealed no blood relationship between migrant adults and the children they were traveling with. The Examiner reported this spring that border patrol agents performed far fewer DNA tests since Biden’s inauguration. And some “minors” released at the border aren’t really minors: Yery Noel Medina Ulloa, a 24-year-old Honduran migrant who was released months ago at the border after claiming to be 17, was recently charged with murder in Jacksonville, Florida, after stabbing to death a father of four who had taken him in.
According to the Journal’s reporting, the migrant lawsuits allege that “some of the children suffered from a range of ailments, including heat exhaustion and malnutrition, and were kept in freezing cold rooms and provided little medical attention.” Migrants’ attorneys are seeking an average payout of $3.4 million. For context, the per capita GDP in Guatemala, from which 60 percent of the separated migrants hail, is $3,263. In Honduras, the country that produced the second-highest number of migrants, it’s $2,010. Gold star families who lose a child in combat get $100,000.
Migrants respond to incentives. When someone gets a visa to come to the U.S. or successfully sneaks across the border, they tell others who are inspired to try their luck. Those who get thwarted also spread the word to their social circles, dissuading them from trying. That’s part of the reason why illegal entries fell to a 46-year low during Trump’s first year in office. If the payouts happen, word will travel fast. The message to many aspiring immigrants would be that people just like them came to the U.S. border without visas and will soon be rich. Some will doubtless file frivolous lawsuits claiming abuse, with the help of sympathetic NGOs and unscrupulous attorneys.
Encouraging people to cross the border on foot with children in tow is reckless. According to the United Nations, some 2,403 migrants died trying to do so from 2014–2019, including 497 in 2019. Biden hasn’t visited the border since becoming president. Has he considered the risks and consequences of this settlement?
The Democrats don’t have the votes or public backing to pass the kind of sweeping immigration legislation they support. Instead, they make incremental moves that spur more illegal immigration. Now the Biden administration may do it with taxpayer money. Eleven Republican senators have asked the administration to halt the settlement talks, and more could stand to join them. Conservatives should remind voters at every opportunity that Democrats want to pay people to break U.S. laws.
Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images