The Alternative to Detaining Immigrant Families

By Ruthie Epstein

With his hastily issued executive order on family separation on Wednesday, President Trump presented America with a false choice: If you don’t want me to tear infants from their mother’s arms, I’ll just put entire families in jail.

Specifically, Trump directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to keep families in custody “during the pendency of any criminal improper entry or immigration proceedings involving their members.” He also directed the Department of Defense and all other federal agencies to let DHS use their facilities so that family jail space can be expanded as quickly as possible.

Trump’s plan is inhumane and wrong. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other child-welfare experts have found that jailing children and parents can severely damage their physical and mental health, even irreversibly. When President Obama expanded family detention in 2014, his actions were met with swift condemnation from immigrants rights, civil rights, and criminal reform organizations, including the ACLU. A federal court put the brakes on that expansion, applying a longstanding rule that prohibits the detention of children in substandard facilities and favors their release.

Rather than jailing families who are in deportation proceedings, the government should release anyone who is not a flight risk, or whose flight risk can be mitigated by an alternative to detention. Such alternatives are designed to ensure court appearance and compliance with any final court orders, but they do even more — they allow families to live outside prison walls while their case moves through the system. That allows them to more easily find an attorney and prepare their defense — and non-detained immigrants with legal representation are far more likely to win legal relief. It also means that parents can raise their own children as normally as possible, limiting the long-term trauma to the family.

Despite these obvious advantages, in June 2017, the Trump administration canceled the Family Case Management Program, which was run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as an alternative to detention for families seeking asylum. The program operated in five regions: New York City/Newark, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Baltimore/Washington, D.C. It provided case management, referrals for support services, and legal orientation, in partnership with community-based non-governmental organizations, in order to make sure that vulnerable families’ most urgent needs were met and they had the information they needed to comply with legal obligations.

The Trump administration would have you believe that releasing immigrants while their cases proceed in court encourages them to disappear from the government’s radar. That’s just false. The Family Case Management Program had a 99 percent effectiveness rate — meaning almost every single person enrolled in the program showed up for all immigration appointments and court hearings. And it was fiscally responsible — just $36 per day per family, compared to $319 per day per person for family detention.

And not all families need the level of support provided by the Family Case Management Program. The government still has the option of releasing families on recognizance, bond, or parole while their cases proceed, and it should be doing so when more intensive supervision is unnecessary to mitigate flight risk. In March, the ACLU, Human Rights First, and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies sued the administration for jailing asylum seekers indefinitely rather than following their own policy and releasing them on humanitarian parole. That case is pending.

The administration must reinstate the Family Case Management Program or other alternatives that provide families with community-based support services. It must use its authority to release families on recognizance, bond, and parole. It must reverse its plan to build new jails for children and their parents. And Congress must refuse to fund family detention beds.

Family separation is a crisis of the Trump administration’s own making — a crisis it is trying to replace with a new one. Jailing thousands of asylum-seeking families is unnecessary and the wrong way forward. If the president thinks his executive order will bring the nationwide outrage over his border policies to an end, he is deeply mistaken.

Ruther Epstein is with the National Political Advocacy Department of the ACLU

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will

    As I see it, there are two cases to be made for Family Case Management as opposed to the current proposal for prolonged family incarceration. Both are based on conservative principles.

    1. Strong families are critical to raising children to be respectful, well integrated and law abiding members of their community. A strongly conservative poster has made this point repeatedly on the Vanguard and he is not wrong. To the greatest extent possible, we should be encouraging family unity in a community setting as individual case appeals for asylum wend their way through the courts.

    2. Prudent use of taxpayer money is always desirable. The Family Case Management program has been demonstrated to have a high adherence rate, is effective, and is less expensive than an imprisonment program. Obviously only for those who have not committed crimes and are not a flight risk.

    There are also arguments from a more liberal perspective regarding humane treatment for all, not just those of whom we approve, but I have been called “bleeding heart” enough for this week already.

  2. Jeff M

    Rather than jailing families who are in deportation proceedings, the government should release anyone who is not a flight risk, or whose flight risk can be mitigated by an alternative to detention.

    There are few to none that are not a flight risk.  And there is no clear way to mitigate the alternative to detention… especially with liberal activists ready to take these people to sanctuary cities and states to help them slip away to create more babies for the giant Democrat vote-generating machine and the giant establishment Republican big business cheap labor generating machine.

    So there is no alternative.

    And I think you know that.

    I would prefer we just build the wall and spend money on reasonable accommodations to vet the cases of those that claim asylum.  That would be the most humane thing to do, but will not be supported by Democrats because of the great vote-making machine.


  3. CTherese Benoit

    This is so weird to me… Why won’t they just let these families go home? It’s one thing to deny them asylum/aide but to keep them hostage and torture their children is crazy… it’s not even of benefit to Americans. It’s expensive, controversial, divisive… So much toxicity with no actual benefit to anyone, except pedophiles and human traffickers… Baffling.

    1. Jeff M

      Why won’t they just let these families go home?

      The US officials would deport their entire family but for the fact that the parents claim asylum.  Only 20% of those are granted through the courts, but by catching them and releasing them, 60% end up illegal and living in the country.

      1. CTherese Benoit

        It seems like they should be able to make these facilities a little more like dorms and less like warehouses/prisons… In that case it would not be as bad. And with the families left intact, it’s certainly less horrifying.

        It would be nice if they allowed them to work, even if as “cheap labor” for local businesses so that they could buy essentials for themselves (like real blankets and better food)… I know there are mixed feelings on this but it seems like there should be a way to make it a win-win for everyone AND be a lot kinder to those in need.

        1. Howard P

          Confinement, even in a gilded cage, is still confinement… confinement is sometimes necessary… when it is not necessary, it is an abomination…

  4. CTherese Benoit

    Howard P I tend to agree with you on confinement…

    I guess the desperation of these people would play a factor, but again confinement such as this does seem excessive… I know refugees in Netherlands can come/go as they please as long as they don’t leave the country their asylum claim is in… Their living situation is mostly dormitory really, and it seems to work well. They understand their cases are being reviewed and it is safer for them to wait, learn the language, and heal from whatever traumas they’ve escaped in their home countries… As long as their families are together, they’re content.

    Perspective is key… We may be looking at this as Americans – our expectations are so much higher than others. I was in an ornately gilded cage myself for nearly 2 years, allowed to come/go as long as I obeyed a curfew… Still by month 3, I was thinking of any escape I could find. So I do know what you mean. But in that gilded cage with me were Albanian, African (varying countries), and Brazilian women… All of whom seemed HAPPY to be there and some had been there in excess of 5 YEARS…

    So when they talk of keeping these people confined, will it literally be like a prison? Locked down all day long. Or are they permitted to wander the towns and go to parks with their children, make friends outside of the place? If the latter is the case; I think most of them would find that tolerable – relief really from whatever they are fleeing.

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