Families separated at the border now fear attempts at blackmail

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WASHINGTON (AP) – For the 30-year-old Honduran woman, the worst seemed over. She is reunited with her son, who was separated from her at the age of 6 under the Trump administration. She works in construction in North Carolina. And lawyers negotiated payment for families like hers who had broken up.

But reports of these negotiations have raised a new concern: blackmail attempts resulting from the mistaken assumption that she received a huge payout. Her family has already received $ 5,000 a month in debt.

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

While specific reports are isolated, widespread blackmail in Central America explains why many seek asylum in the United States in the first place. Some proponents fear that the prospect of high payments will fuel many more threats. A lawyer for the woman and other families has asked US officials to consider adding relatives because of the threats.

It is still far from clear whether families will get any money from the US government. Negotiations to settle damages ended amid political outrage over payments that erupted following a report in The Wall Street Journal that the Justice Department is considering $ 450,000 per person to compensate for the suffering – or $ 900,000 for parents and child. A person familiar with the conversations, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as the conversations were private, confirmed that the number had been disclosed.

“People here think I have a lot of money,” says a 47-year-old business owner in northern Guatemala, whose wife was separated from her son. He has become more nervous from news reports about 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 son, who is now 18, live in Atlanta after being separated at the border for more than a month in 2018. The man said he got text messages at the time he threatened to kidnap his son if he didn’t pay any money.

“My neighbor said to me the other day, ‘So you have money because money was given to people who were separated 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 go to the United States in 2019. You were kidnapped in Mexico for two weeks, released after paying more than US $ 3,000 to the Mexican authorities, and deported to Guatemala.

“I don’t live in peace,” he said. “I always look over my shoulder.”

Ricardo de Anda, a lawyer for the Honduran and Guatemalans, said five of the 72 families he represents told him they had been threatened after reporting the possible payments. One in Guatemala was targeted in an attempted kidnapping.

“These families have told us that they are now the subject of rumors in their communities of the apparent wealth of family members in the United States, that they have been monitored by obviously criminal elements and that they have been warned to be vigilant because criminal gangs consider them extortionists” , he wrote to Michelle Brané, executive director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Family Reunification Task Force. “As a result of the (news) leaks, family members in the US and those trapped in their homeland now live in constant fear.”

The task force, which aims to reunite nearly 2,000 children with their parents in the United States, had planned the possibility of extortion, realizing that such threats are widespread in Central America, and set up a system to report on the UN refugees to head agency, said Brane in an interview last month.

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

“When families are in unsafe situations and need to reunite, we are here to work and get it done asap,” she said.

The task force had matched about 112 children with their parents in the United States by last week. You will be granted a permit to stay in the country for at least three years while seeking asylum or applying for permanent status under another program.

Other family lawyers said they were not directly aware of threats related to possible payments, but said they are inevitable if they have not already happened. The attorneys suspect that some attempts have not been reported or they have received no message.

“I have no doubt that it happens in more cases than we know,” said Trina Realmuto, executive director of the National Immigration Litigation Alliance, which was involved in settlement talks over financial compensation.

The talks are delicate for the government, which has been criticized for considering large payouts. President Joe Biden himself said “That will not happen” when asked about the $ 450,000 figure in November, and later made it clear that he was backing some compensation.

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

“Although the parties failed to reach a global agreement at this point, we remain committed to working with plaintiffs and bringing justice to the victims of these heinous policies,” the ministry said in a statement.

This month, family lawyers renewed a motion to the government to surrender files related to the design and implementation of the policy, suggesting a potentially lengthy legal battle.

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

De Anda asked the administration to consider taking in family members who have been threatened since the news reports. The administration has focused on separated parents and children but says it will consider additional families on a case-by-case basis.

The woman from Honduras 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 in North Carolina to join her.

Acquaintances have warned that the children in Honduras may be unsafe.

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

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Spagat reported from San Diego and Torrens from New York.

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