Lawyers representing thousands of families separated at the southern border during a Trump administration crackdown have reached a settlement with the federal government that enables the migrants to remain in the United States and apply for asylum, putting them on the path to permanent legal residency.
The agreement, filed on Monday in federal court in San Diego, concludes years of negotiations that were part of a class-action lawsuit to address the harm inflicted by family separations carried out in 2017 and 2018.
The policy was a key component of the Trump administration’s efforts to curb unauthorized immigration. Children were systematically taken from their parents and sent to shelters and foster homes across the country, and parents were criminally charged for entering the country unlawfully.
The objective was to deliver a powerful deterrent to families planning to come to the United States, even those seeking asylum. All told, several thousand foreign-born children were taken from their parents. Later, it emerged that hundreds of U.S.-born children crossing the border with migrant parents were also subjected to the policy.
Wrenching images and audio of children being taken from their parents stirred outrage and criticism, and eventually prompted a wave of lawsuits — including the class-action suit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California.
About three-quarters of the families that were separated have either been reunified or had been provided with the information they need to begin to reunification process, a senior administration official told reporters on Monday.
If approved by the judge overseeing case, the settlement in the class action would grant the families permission to live and work legally in the United States while they await a decision on their asylum claims. Parents and children who have been separated and are already in the United States will be able to petition to bring immediate family members from their home countries.
“This agreement will facilitate the reunification of separated families and provide them with critical services to aid in their recovery,” the attorney general, Merrick B. Garland, said in a statement.
Families that have previously been denied asylum will be eligible to reapply, and asylum officers will be instructed by the government to take into account the trauma caused by the forced separations. Families that prevail in their asylum cases — which typically take years to be adjudicated — will be eligible for green cards and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.
“While we can never completely make these families whole again, or erase the moral stain of this abhorrent policy, we are thrilled for the families that will receive the settlement’s benefits, most of all the children who have not seen their parents in years and suffering families who will have a meaningful opportunity to remain in the U.S.,” said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union, the lead counsel in the class-action lawsuit.
The agreement, which was negotiated by the Justice Department, now goes before Judge Dana M. Sabraw of U.S. District Court in San Diego, who has been overseeing the case. A hearing is scheduled for December.
“When we brought this lawsuit, no one thought it would involve thousands of children, take us to so many countries searching for families, or last for years,” Mr. Gelernt said.
Parents were incarcerated for illegally entering the country and their children, as young as 6 months old, were sent to shelters or foster homes. Most of the separations occurred in the spring of 2018 and lasted several weeks. But, in some cases, they extended to years because parents were deported without their children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said the initiative amounted to “sweeping cruelty.”
Some young children did not recognize their parents when they were reunified by U.S. authorities, after an order issued in June 2018 by Judge Sabraw. Other parents and children could not be found, delaying reunification, because of poor record-keeping by federal agencies.
The settlement largely restricts separations in the future to cases in which a parent has been abusive or committed serious crimes, and the settlement stipulates that all separations must be documented in databases shared among federal agencies.
While many of the separated families have been reunited, and many parents who were deported have returned to the United States, hundreds more families are yet to be found.
Shortly after taking office, President Biden established a task force to create a process for locating parents who had not been reunited with their children because they had been deported to countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Lawyers for the families and the government lawyers also had been negotiating financial compensation for the harm caused by the separations. But talks stalled, and ultimately collapsed in October 2021, after a leak suggested that the Justice Department was willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to each family.
Following that disclosure, only the class-action negotiations proceeded, and the government task force continued to work with the A.C.L.U. and advocacy groups to reunite families.
Still, some lawsuits seeking money damages are proceeding in federal courts, accusing the government of negligence, abuse and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
Seamus Hughes and Eileen Sullivan contributed research.