Fear of extortion for families separated at the border

WASHINGTON (AP), -- The worst seemed over for the Honduran 30-year-old woman. She has been reunited to her 6-year-old son, who was separated from her by the Trump administration. She is currently working in North Carolina construction. Attorneys were also negotiating a payment to families that had to go through separations.

Fear of extortion for families separated at the border

Reports about these negotiations have raised a new concern: extortion attempts stemming out of the false belief that she had received a large payout. Already, her family received requests for $5,000 per month.

The woman said that she is a millionaire and was speaking on condition of anonymity because her family is at risk. "I don’t have the money or know how to pay for such a thing. "I am really desperate."

Although specific cases are rare, the widespread extortion in Central America is the reason why so many people seek asylum in the United States. Advocates fear that large payments could fuel more threats. A lawyer representing the woman and her family has requested that U.S. officials consider admitting more relatives due to the threats.

It is not clear whether the families will be paid any money from the U.S. government. Negotiations to settle damages claims ended amid outrage from politicians over the payment of damages. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department was looking at $450,000 per person to compensate suffering, or $900,000. For a parent and a child, this would be about $450,000 each. The AP was informed by a person who was familiar with the talks and spoke on condition of anonymity to confirm that the figure had been suggested.

A 47-year-old businessman in northern Guatemala, whose wife had been separated from their son, said that "people here think I have lots of cash." Because of the news reports about settlement talks, he has become more anxious and changes his phone number every two weeks.

After being separated from his wife for over a month at the border in 2018, the man now lives in Guatemala with his 14 year-old daughter. His wife and 18-year old son are now living in Atlanta. According to the man, he was receiving text messages at that time in which he threatened to kidnap his son and demanded money.

"My neighbor said to me, "So you have money because money was given people who were separated in America." I replied that I didn't know anything about it.

According to the man, he tried to travel to the U.S. with his daughter in 2019. After being held captive in Mexico for two months, they were released by Mexican authorities and then deported to Guatemala.

He said, "I don’t live in peace." "I always look over my shoulder."

Ricardo de Anda is an attorney representing the Honduran woman as well as the Guatemalan man. He said that five of the 72 families he represents told him they felt threatened by the news coverage about possible payments. An attempted kidnapping of one Guatemalan citizen was the target.

"These families have informed us that they are now subject to rumors in their local communities about the apparent wealth of family member in the U.S., and that they've been subject to surveillance by suspected criminal elements. They have also been warned to be vigilant because criminal gangs consider them the subjects for extortion," he wrote Michelle Brane, executive director, of the Family Reunification Task Force of the Homeland Security Department. "As a consequence of the (news leaks), family members in the U.S. and those in their home country now live in constant fear.

Brane stated that the task force, which aims to reunite almost 2,000 children with their parents in America, had anticipated the possibility of extortion and realized that such threats are common throughout Central America.

Brane stated that she hadn't yet received specific reports, but that the danger highlights the importance of the task force's work.

She said, "If families are in unsafe circumstances and require reunification,"

As of last week, the task force had reunited approximately 112 children and their parents in America. They will be allowed to remain in the country for a minimum of three years while they seek asylum or permanent status through another program.

Others representing the families claimed they didn't know of any threats to potential payments, but they said they were likely, even if they haven’t already. Some attempts may have been missed or not reached the attorneys, according to the attorneys.

Trina Realmuto was the executive director of National Immigration Litigation Alliance. She was part of settlement negotiations over financial compensation.

For the administration, who has been criticised for considering large payments, these talks are delicate. When asked about the $450,000 figure in November, President Joe Biden said "That's just not going to happen." He later clarified that he supported some compensation.

The Justice Department pulled out of talks regarding financial compensation last month after eight months, but did not rule out a deal.

"While we have not been able to reach a global settlement agreement at the moment, we remain committed in engaging with the plaintiffs to bring justice to the victims and this abhorrent strategy," the department stated in a statement.

Family attorneys renewed their request to the administration for troves and records about how the policy was created and executed. This signaled a potential long court battle.

Lawyers said that talks have been ongoing over non-monetary issues such as reunifying family members in the United States, and other services like mental health.

De Anda requested that the administration consider admitting any family members who had been threatened by the news reports. Although the administration has emphasized parents and children who have been separated, it says that it will take into consideration other families as well.

According to the Honduran woman, her 56-year old mother had received $5,000 per month in notes. The mother takes care of the woman's two other children, an 11 year-old son and a 7-year old daughter. The woman would like all her children to come with her to North Carolina.

A few acquaintances warned that children could be dangerous in Honduras.

The woman, who took anxiety pills and was experiencing chest pains following threats against her mother, said that she was afraid. "I don’t know what could happen to my children."

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