How much does the United States owe to immigrant families whose children were separated from them as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” approach to border crossings that began in May 2018? Is it $450,000 per person affected by the callous policy, a figure recently reported by the Wall Street Journal? More? Less?

President Biden says he doesn’t know how much these children and their parents are owed, but he absolutely believes they are owed something. “If in fact, because of the outrageous behavior of the last administration,” he said Nov. 6, “you coming across the border, whether it was legal or illegal, and you lost your child, you lost your child! ... you deserve some kind of compensation no matter what the circumstance.”

Many on the right have challenged that reasoning. After all, they argue, the parents broke the law to cross the border, and should have known they were risking arrest and family separation.

But in dismissing outright the payouts — and for the record, the White House says the sums will be smaller than those reported — critics overlook scores of lawsuits already filed, and nearly 1,000 claims made, alleging lasting psychological harm. How responsible would it be to refuse to settle, and instead shoulder the high cost of litigation coupled with the risk of losing? If they do get to court, juries are likely to be as outraged as we were by the extraordinarily cruel and haphazard way the administration prosecuted the zero-policy approach.

Inevitably, that policy meant ripping children, including those too young to walk or talk, away from their parents. Scholars critical of the policy have argued that it opened the United States to liability for tort suits just like the ones that have been filed, and that it violated constitutional rights of the children affected. Many who were arrested had intended only to present claims of asylum, something Trump’s policies had made all but impossible to do at the border checkpoints where such claims are usually made. Republicans and Democrats alike balked at images of heartbreak at the border and within two months Trump issued an executive order ordering that families seeking asylum be kept together.

Trials that relived all of that trauma for jurors could result in far higher damages than any of the numbers now being discussed as settlement payments.

It’s an example of how America will be paying one way or another for the colossal mistakes of the Trump administration, especially when it comes to immigration.


The policy broke apart more than 4,000 immigrant families, many of them fleeing danger in their home countries and pursuing asylum claims in the United States.

Some are still separated, though Biden has made it a priority to reunite the families. And while Trump and his glowering, young xenophobe adviser Miller are gone, unpaid bills remain. The American people still owe both a moral debt and a monetary one.

The second policy disaster predated the Trump administration. This nation’s immigration policy has been an unholy mess for years. Trump’s contribution to a broken system was policy chaos and indifference to human suffering.

For now, smaller reforms are our best hope. Some of them included in Biden’s Build Back Better package are excellent ideas, from raising the number of green cards available, to reflect unused slots in recent years, to offering undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before 2011 so-called immigration parole, which would allow them to seek renewable, five-year work permits.

Settlements are the most prudent step. As we reach for our checkbook, we’re reminded yet again that Donald Trump invariably leaves debt in his wake. We’ll be paying those debts, monetary and otherwise, for years to come.

Today’s editorial is from The Houston Chronicle. The views expressed are not necessarily those of this newspaper.