By Daniel Dale, CNN
President Joe Biden was asked by a Fox News reporter on Wednesday about a Wall Street Journal article last week that had reported “the Biden administration is in talks to offer immigrant families that were separated during the Trump administration around $450,000 a person in compensation.”
The reporter asked Biden if such payments — which the Journal said “could amount to close to $1 million a family” — could serve as an incentive for additional undocumented people to try to enter the US. Biden responded, “If you guys keep sending that garbage out, yeah. But it’s not true.”
When the reporter asked Biden directly if “this is a garbage report,” Biden replied, “Yeah.” Then, offering the first inkling of what specifically he was denying, Biden disputed the “$450,000” figure the Wall Street Journal used.
Biden asked, “Four hundred and fifty thousand dollars per person. Is that what you’re saying?” When the reporter confirmed, Biden said, “That’s not gonna happen.”
Facts First: The White House says Biden’s “garbage” claim on Wednesday was specifically a denial that the administration is considering payments of $450,000 to families affected by the Trump-era separation policy — not a denial that the administration is considering giving some amount of money to these families. The Journal was correct that there are ongoing negotiations in which, in response to lawsuits, the Biden administration is talking about providing financial compensation. Since CNN doesn’t have all of the details of these confidential negotiations, we can’t definitively fact-check Biden’s denial that $450,000 payments in particular were being discussed at the time.
Politicians’ aides sometimes try to rewrite the meaning of their bosses’ comments after the fact. In this case, though, it did seem in context on Wednesday that Biden was taking issue with the $450,000 figure in particular.
Still, Biden could certainly have been clearer about what he meant. White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was far more precise at a White House briefing on Thursday.
Jean-Pierre told reporters that Biden had been commenting on “the dollar figure that was mentioned,” not on the idea of settling with the families. Jean-Pierre said that, “if it saves taxpayer dollars and puts the disastrous history of the previous administration’s use of ‘zero tolerance‘ and family separation behind us,” Biden is “perfectly comfortable with the Department of Justice settling with the individuals and families who are currently in litigation with the US government.”
Jean-Pierre would not say what figure lower than $450,000 Biden is comfortable with. She did confirm something American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony D. Romero told CNN: after Biden’s public remarks on Wednesday, the Justice Department communicated to people involved in the negotiations that “the numbers reported in the press are higher than anywhere that settlement can land.”
We can’t say with confidence what numbers were being contemplated in the private discussions before Biden’s comments on Wednesday. On Thursday, Romero said in another statement to CNN that settlement negotiations had been “admittedly in flux” even before “the president’s comments and congressional pushback” did “appear to have affected” the talks. (Romero also said he could not comment on specific details.)
Lawsuits over the Trump-era separations have been filed both by the ACLU and by attorneys representing affected families. Here some background context from a Thursday article by CNN immigration reporter Priscilla Alvarez:
More than 3,000 children were separated from their families at the US-Mexico border under former President Donald Trump. It’s unclear how many people would be eligible for payments.
Outside groups and a government watchdog have found over the years that children separated from their families under the “zero tolerance” policy experienced trauma. A 2019 Health and Human Services inspector general report included accounts of facility staff detailing the inconsolable crying of children when they were separated, the kids’ confusion and belief they had been abandoned by their parents.
The Physicians for Human Rights likened it to “torture,” and the American Academy of Pediatrics told CNN the Trump administration’s practice of separating families at the border was “child abuse.”
More than three years later, attorneys are still trying to reach the parents of 270 migrant children who were separated at the US-Mexico border under the Trump administration, according to a federal court filing Wednesday.
The Biden administration has committed to helping reunite families as part of a family reunification task force. Since the creation of the task force, 58 children have been reunified with their parents in the United States, according to the filing.
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CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.