WASHINGTON ( Associated Press) – For a 30-year-old Honduran woman, the worst seemed to be over. She is reunited with her son, who, at the age of 6, was separated from her under the Trump administration. She is doing construction work in North Carolina. And lawyers were negotiating payments for families like hers who endured the separation.
But reports about those talks have raised a new concern: extortion attempts stemming from the mistaken belief that he received a sizable payout. Her family has already received a demand of $5,000 a month.
“Obviously, I’m a millionaire now,” said the woman, who, like others interviewed by The Associated Press, spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of her family’s safety. “I don’t have the money to do something like this and I don’t know what to do. I’m desperate, really.”
While specific reports vary, the widespread extortion in Central America explains why many people seek asylum in the United States. Some advocates fear that the prospect of larger payouts will fuel many more threats. An attorney for the woman and other families has asked US officials to consider accepting more relatives because of the threat.
It is unclear whether the families will receive any money from the US government. Negotiations to settle claims of damages ended amid political outrage over the payments that began after a report in The Wall Street Journal that the Justice Department was considering $450,000 per person. To cover the suffering – or $900,000 for the parent and child. A person familiar with the conversation spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private and confirmed the figure had been floated.
“People here think I have a lot of money,” said a 47-year-old businessman in northern Guatemala whose wife was separated from his son. He has become more nervous because of news reports on the negotiations and now changes his cellphone number every two weeks.
The man lives in Guatemala with his 14-year-old daughter, while his wife and now 18-year-old son lives in Atlanta after being separated at the border for more than a month in 2018. The man said he was receiving text messages. Threatened to kidnap the son if the money was not paid.
“My neighbor said to me the other day, ‘So you have the money, because the money was given to people who were separated in the United States. And I told him that I didn’t know anything about it.”
The man said that he and his daughter tried to move to the US in 2019. He was kidnapped for two weeks in Mexico, released to Mexican authorities and deported to Guatemala after paying more than $3,000.
“I don’t live in peace,” he said. “I’m always looking over my shoulder.”
Ricardo De Anda, the lawyer for the Honduran woman and the Guatemalan man, said five of the 72 families represented by them told them they were threatened after news coverage of a possible payment. One was targeted in an attempted kidnapping in Guatemala.
“These families have told us that they are now the subject of rumors about the apparent wealth of family members in the US in their communities, that they are under surveillance by apparent criminal elements, and have been warned to remain vigilant. Since criminal gangs are treating them as the subject of extortion,” he wrote Michelle Bran, executive director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Family Reunification Task Force. live in fear.”
Task force, which aims to reunite nearly 2,000 children With his parents in the United States, had planned for the possibility of extortion, realizing that such threats were common in Central America, and decided to channel the report through the United Nations Refugee Agency. installed the system, Bran said in an interview last month.
Brane said he had not yet received any specific reports, but the potential threat underscores the need for the task force to complete its task.
“If families are in unsafe situations and need to be reunited, we are here to work and get it done as quickly as possible,” she said.
As of last week, the task force has reunited about 112 children in the US with their parents. They are being allowed to stay in the country for at least three years while they pursue asylum or seek permanent status through some other program.
Other lawyers for the families said they had no direct knowledge of the dangers associated with the potential payments, but said they were inevitable, if they had not already occurred. Lawyers suspect that some attempts have not been reported or have not reached them.
“I have no doubt that this is happening in more cases than we know,” said Trina Realmuto, executive director of the National Immigration Litigation Alliance.
Negotiations are fragile for the administration, which has been criticized for considering large payouts. President Joe Biden himself said, “It’s not going to happen,” when asked about the $450,000 figure in November, and later clarified that he supported some compensation.
Last month the Justice Department withdrew from talks On financial compensation after eight months, but did not rule out an agreement.
“While the parties have been unable to reach a global settlement agreement at this time, we remain committed to engaging with the plaintiffs and bringing justice to the victims of this abhorrent policy,” the department said in a statement.
This month, lawyers for the families renewed a request for the administration to turn over a trove of records on how the policy was conceived and executed, prompting a potentially lengthy court battle.
Lawyers said talks are continuing on non-monetary issues, including reuniting families in the United States and other services such as mental health.
De Anda asked the administration to consider admitting family members who had been threatened following the news reports. The administration has focused on parents and children who were separated, but says it will consider the case of additional families.
A Honduran woman said her 56-year-old mother had 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 in Honduras could be unsafe.
“I’m scared,” said the woman, who took pills for anxiety and went to the emergency room with chest pains after threats against her mother. “I don’t know what can happen to my kids.”
Spaget reported from San Diego and Torrance reported from New York.