Families separated at the border now fear extortion attempts | Politics

WASHINGTON (AP) – For the 30-year-old Honduran woman, the worst seemed to be over. She was reunited with her son who, at the age of 6, was separated from her during the Trump administration. She works in construction in North Carolina. And the lawyers were negotiating a payment for families like his who suffered separations.

But reports of those negotiations have created a new worry: extortion attempts resulting from the mistaken belief that she received a huge payment. Her family has already received requests for $ 5,000 a month.

“Apparently I’m a millionaire now,” said the woman, who, like others interviewed by The Associated Press, spoke on condition of anonymity over fears for the safety of her family. “I don’t have the money to pay for something like this and I don’t know what to do. I am desperate, really.

While specific reports stand in isolation, widespread extortion in Central America explains why many seek asylum in the United States in the first place. Some advocates fear the prospect of large payments will fuel many other threats. An attorney for the woman and other families has asked U.S. authorities to consider admitting more relatives due to the threats.

It is far from clear whether families will receive money from the US government. Negotiations to settle claims for damages ended amid political outrage over the payments that erupted following a Wall Street Journal article the Justice Department was considering $ 450,000 per person to make up for the suffering – or $ 900,000 for a parent and child. A person familiar with the talks who spoke to the PA on condition of anonymity because the talks were private confirmed that this figure had been put forward.

“People here think I have a lot of money,” said a 47-year-old business owner in northern Guatemala whose wife was estranged from their son. He has become more nervous over reports of the settlement talks and now changes his cell phone number every two weeks.

The man lives in Guatemala with his 14-year-old daughter, while his wife and now 18-year-old son live in Atlanta after being separated at the border for more than a month in 2018. The man said that ‘he was receiving text messages. at the time threatening to kidnap his son if he did not pay the money.

“My neighbor said to me the other day, ‘So you have money, because money was given to separated people in the United States.’ And I told him I didn’t know anything about it, ”he said.

The man said he and his daughter tried to get to the United States in 2019. They were kidnapped in Mexico for two weeks, turned over to Mexican authorities after paying more than $ 3,000 and deported to Guatemala.

“I don’t live in peace,” he said. “I’m still looking over my shoulder.”

Ricardo de Anda, an attorney for the Honduran woman and the Guatemalan man, said five of the 72 families he represents told him they had been threatened after media coverage of the possible payments. One in Guatemala was targeted in an attempted kidnapping.

“These families told us that they are now the subject of rumors in their communities about the apparent wealth of family members in the United States, that they have been placed under surveillance by apparent criminal elements and that ‘they have been warned to be vigilant, because criminal gangs regard them as subjects of extortion, ”he wrote to Michelle Brané, executive director of the domestic security department’s family reunification working group. . in their country of origin, now live in constant fear.

The working group, which aims to bring together nearly 2000 children with their parents in the United States, anticipated the possibility of extortion, realizing that such threats are common in Central America, and put in place a system to channel reports through the United Nations refugee agency, a Brane said in an interview last month.

Brané said she had not yet received any specific reports, but the potential danger underscores the need for the task force to complete its work.

“If families are in dangerous situations and need to be reunited, we are here to work and do that as soon as possible,” she said.

The task force brought together about 112 children with their parents in the United States last week. They are granted permission to stay in the country for at least three years while they seek asylum or seek permanent status under another program.

Other lawyers for the families said they had no first-hand knowledge of threats to possible payments, but said they were inevitable, if they had not happened already. Lawyers suspect that some attempts have not been reported or that the news has not reached them.

“I have no doubt this is happening in more cases than we know,” said Trina Realmuto, executive director of the National Immigration Litigation Alliance, which has been involved in financial compensation settlement talks.

The talks are delicate for the administration, which has been criticized for considering large payments. President Joe Biden himself said: “It will not happen” when asked in November for the figure of $ 450,000, and later clarified that he supported compensation.

Last month, the Department of Justice withdrew from the talks on financial compensation after eight months but did not rule out an agreement.

“Although the parties have not been able to reach a comprehensive settlement agreement yet, we remain committed to engaging the plaintiffs and bringing justice to the victims of this heinous policy,” the department said in a statement. communicated.

This month, lawyers for the families renewed a demand for the administration to hand over treasure troves of documents on how the policy was designed and executed, signaling a potentially lengthy court battle.

Discussions continued on non-monetary issues, including family reunification in the United States and other services, such as mental health, lawyers said.

De Anda asked the administration to consider admitting family members who have been threatened since the reports. The administration has focused on parents and children who have been separated, but said it would consider other families on a case-by-case basis.

The Honduran woman said her 56-year-old mother received notes asking for $ 5,000 a month. The mother takes care of the woman’s other children, an 11-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. The woman wants everyone to join her in North Carolina.

Acquaintances have warned that children could be in danger in Honduras.

“I’m scared,” said the woman, who is on anxiety medication and went to the emergency room with chest pain after threats against her mother. “I don’t know what can happen to my children.”

Spagat reported from San Diego and Torrens from New York.

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