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This Obama-era pilot program kept asylum-seeking migrant families together. Trump canceled it.

ICE said the Family Case Management Program, which cost the government $36 a day, was too expensive compared to other monitoring methods.
by Jane C. Timm /  / Updated 

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In the wake of the 2014 migrant crisis that saw the Obama administration suffer its own backlash for the way it detained parents and children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement came up with a new way to handle families seeking asylum in the United States.

The Family Case Management Program, launched as a pilot in early 2016, aimed to keep asylum seeking kin together, out of detention, and complying with immigration laws. It was praised by immigration advocates for both its high rate of compliance and its ability to help migrants thrive in a new country — right up until the Trump administration shuttered it almost exactly a year ago.

As President Donald Trump tells the nation he must crack down on people who cross the border illegally while defending his administration's decision to separate thousands of children from their parents in the name of border security, advocates point to this program as a success story that was eliminated abruptly by a president more keen on deportation and detention.

Under the program, families who passed a credible fear interview and were determined to be good candidates for a less-secure form of release — typically vulnerable populations like pregnant women, mothers who are nursing or moms with young children — were given a caseworker who helped educate them on their rights and responsibilities. The caseworker also helped families settle in, assisting with things like accessing medical care and attorneys, while also making sure their charges made it to court.

“It was really, really cost efficient compared to family detention or family separation,” Katharina Obser, a senior policy adviser for the Women's Refugee Commission's Migrant Rights and Justice program, said.

According to The Associated Press, cost the government $36 per day per family. By the end, it served 954 people in total, according to a 2017 Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report.

Trump has slammed policies or programs that let undocumented immigrants live in the country while awaiting immigration proceedings, using the term "catch and release" to decry the protections afforded to children and families seeking asylum in the U.S. and inaccurately claiming that the laws force ICE to release dangerous criminals.

“And we say, 'Please show up to court in a couple of months.' You know what the chances of getting him to court are? Like zero. Ok? It’s crazy,” Trump told Fox News in June.

In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy of prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally, including asylum seekers, which resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents. Public outrage, compounded by photos and media accounts of kids in cages, as well as increasing pushback from members of the president's own party forced Trump to halt the policy of detaining kids separately via executive order on Wednesday. But a day after signing it, he blasted the migrants on Twitter as frauds who use a "legal phrase" as a "password" to come into the country.

Obser said the FCMP encouraged compliance with the laws while treating asylum seekers with compassion.

“When people have an understanding of their immigration requirement and an understanding with the process, they will generally comply…even if it has a negative outcome,” Obser said. “And they will comply because they feel like they’ve had a fair and reasonable chance.”

According to the Inspector General report, overall compliance in the five cities where the pilot was launched was 99 percent for ICE check-ins and appointments, and 100 percent for attendance in court hearings. Just 2 percent of participants absconded during the process.

ICE said it canceled the program because it was too expensive compared to other monitoring methods, and because it did not remove enough asylum seekers from the U.S.

“After a review of the Family Case Management Program (FCMP), ICE discontinued the program in June 2017. The rates of compliance for FCMP were consistent with other monitoring options ICE exercises under Alternatives to Detention (ATD), which proved to be a much better use of limited resources,” ICE spokesperson Sarah Rodriguez told NBC News in a statement.

"Additionally, removals of individuals on ATD occur at a much higher rate than the FCMP," Rodriguez added. "Over the lifespan of FCMP, there were only 15 removals from this program, as opposed to more than 2,200 from ATD in the same period. There are no plans to reinstate the FCMP at this time."

The numbers aren't quite comparable, however, since there were roughly 75 times more enrollees in the other ATD programs ICE cited. FCMP's rate of removal was just over half that of the other ATD programs.

A second ICE spokesman added that the other ATD methods also had a compliance rate of over 99 percent, too. Those cost between $5 and $7 a day per adult.

Immigration advocates contend that the intensive supervision — frequent appointments at ICE and ankle monitors — is intrusive and criminalizing. Obser said the methods are “inappropriate and unnecessary for many of the people” seeking asylum, as many have already experienced trauma.

Detaining the families who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally — even if they request asylum, as many have under the Trump administration's new "zero tolerance" policy — is more expensive than any monitoring method. Keeping families together can cost nearly $300 per person, per day. Detaining migrant children separately from their parents can cost as much as $775 per day in the tent cities the Trump administration has rushed to construct to handle the surge of children removed from their parents.

Advocates note that it is much easier for people to fight for asylum from outside detention, where there is better access to attorneys and interpreters, and it is easier to gather evidence to bolster a case that someone is unsafe in his or her home country.

“Those who are not in detention have a much greater likelihood to find an attorney, and an attorney is really critical to a successful immigration outcome,” Obser said.

Detention centers are often in remote areas that limit representation options. The Trump administration has been sued for limiting asylum seekers access to release from detention while their cases are determined.

Still, on Thursday, the Department of Justice urged a federal judge to allow the government to detain migrant families together for long periods — arguing that release is not an option it wants to entertain because many families fail to show up for their hearings and simply remain in the country illegally.

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