White House killed deal to pay for mental health care for migrant families separated at border

WASHINGTON -- The Trump White House blocked the Justice Department from making a deal in October 2019 to pay for mental health services for migrant families who had been separated by the Trump administration, two current and two former senior administration officials told NBC News.

Three sources involved in the discussions who requested anonymity said the Office of White House Counsel made the decision to reject the settlement of a federal lawsuit after consultation with senior adviser Stephen Miller, the driving force behind many of President Donald Trump's immigration policies, including family separations.

"DOJ strongly, and unanimously, supported the settlement, but not all agencies involved were on the same page," an administration official said. "Ultimately, the settlement was declined at the direction of the White House counsel's office."

Image: Stephen Miller (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file)
Image: Stephen Miller (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file)

Another administration official said: "Ultimately, it was Stephen who prevailed. He squashed it."

The White House's refusal to accept the deal ended up costing taxpayers $6 million.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not say why the White House counsel's office rejected the settlement and denied that Miller was involved: "Mr. Miller was not involved, and any suggestion that he was is false."

After nine months of negotiations, primarily in Los Angeles, an $8 million settlement for screening and counseling thousands of migrants had been "agreed to in principle" by both lawyers for the Justice Department and lawyers representing the migrant families, said Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the pro bono public interest law firm Public Counsel representing the families.

Rosenbaum said the pressure to come to an agreement, and quickly, was mounting.

"Many of these children thought their parents had deliberately abandoned them. The longer that trauma goes unredressed, the more severe the consequences," Rosenbaum said. "We had a deal, a good deal. Everybody was feeling good about where we were. Then they came back and said no."

The lawyers representing the government recommended approval to their superiors in Washington. At the Justice Department, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Claire Murray took the figure to the Office of White House Counsel. It was there that the settlement was rejected, according to the two current and two former administration officials.

Ultimately, it was Stephen who prevailed. He squashed it.

Rosenbaum said he had assumed that the government would want to settle to keep from going to discovery, the process of collecting evidence in a civil court proceeding, which would have involved interviews with children traumatized by the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy.

A former Justice Department official said that immigration issues routinely got kicked to the White House and that there it was expected that Miller would get involved.

The final resolution would not come for six more months. In November 2019, the judge in the case ordered the government to pay for mental health services, which the Justice Department appealed unsuccessfully. The nonprofit Seneca Family of Agencies was awarded a $14 million contract in March to provide screenings and counseling to migrant families.

The delay not only withheld services from the migrant families, but it also kept Seneca from reaching all of those affected, because some were deported before they could be reached. NBC News has reported that lawyers in a separate federal court case still have not found the parents of 666 separated children.

Related: Last month lawyers ordered to find migrant families separated by the Trump administration said they couldn't find parents for 545 kids. Now they say it's 666.

Seneca has now connected with over 500 migrant families, all of whom have been reunified and were not deported.

"Reunification does not erase the trauma caused by the separation. It is just the first step in the healing process. The need to connect families to services is urgent, because when treatment is delayed, it may exacerbate and compound the trauma of the separation," said Paige Chan, executive director of Seneca.

Cheryl Aguilar, founder and lead therapist of the Hope Center for Wellness in Washington, D.C., one of Seneca's partners in implementing mental health services, said the group is treating four children separated from their parents as part of the case.

That includes an 8-year-old girl who is terrified that her mother will leave at any moment and a boy approaching his teens who wets his bed because of the trauma suffered from separation, she said.

"There were delays in getting kids services, and that delays the healing," she said.

Amy Lally of the law firm Sidley Austin, another lawyer representing the separated families, said she was "extremely frustrated when the settlement fell apart" in October 2019.

"When the settlement failed to get approval, my first thought was of the lost time. The months spent negotiating the proposed settlement were months that mothers and children and families continued to suffer, without redress, from the trauma imposed by the government," Lally said.