HOUSTON (AP) — The Trump administration is shutting down the least restrictive alternative to detention available to asylum-seekers who have entered the U.S. illegally, The Associated Press has learned.
Immigration activists consider the move a callous insult to migrants fleeing traumatic violence and poverty — nearly all the program's participants are Central American mothers and children — by a White House that has prioritized deportations that break up families over assimilating refugees.
"This is a clear attempt to punish mothers who are trying to save their children's lives by seeking protection in the United States," said Michelle Brane of the nonprofit Women's Refugee Commission. "I think it's crazy they are shutting down a program that is so incredibly successful."
The overwhelming majority of asylum-seekers that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spares confinement at family detention centers — about 70,000 —have been placed in an intrusive "intensive supervision" program as they await court hearings on whether they can stay in the U.S.
GPS ankle monitors are strapped on three in seven. The wearers, mostly women, complain of bruises and public ostracism.
The Family Case Management Program that is being shuttered had 630 families enrolled as of April 19. Essentially a counseling service, it has operated in Chicago, Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Baltimore/Washington, D.C., since January 2016. Social workers help participants find lawyers, navigate the overburdened immigration court system, get housing and health care, and enroll the kids in school.
Women who previously would have been eligible can now expect to be put on ankle monitors, said Lilian Alba, program manager at the International Institute of Los Angeles, one of the community-based agencies running the program.
It will end June 20, according to a letter signed by Ann M. Schlarb, an executive with GEO Group Inc., the for-profit Boca Raton, Florida, prison company that operated the program under contract with ICE.
Dated Thursday, the letter was emailed to members of an advisory group and provided to the AP by Brane, who received it at the end of business hours.
The program's director at GEO Group, Mary Loiselle, referred all questions to ICE, which was reached by email but had no immediate comment.
Schlarb did not explain in the letter why ICE decided to shutter the program, whose contract had been renewed in September for a year.
"The families have thrived," wrote Schlarb, president of the GEO Group division that also manages the company's electronic-monitoring business. She noted that 99 percent of participants "successfully attended their court appearances and ICE check-ins." That includes more than a dozen families who were ultimately deported, added Brane, a member of a DHS advisory panel on family detention.
The Trump administration's fiscal 2018 budget request has other priorities. It seeks a $1.6 billion increase to expand detention and removals — and the GEO Group in April signed a $110 million contract with ICE to open a new 1,000-bed immigration detention center in Houston.
Agencies that run the program in Los Angeles and Chicago told the AP in April that the GEO Group had informed them that ICE was ending it.
"We don't want to abandon these ladies," Myrna Fragoroso, director of the Frida Kahlo Community Organization, the Chicago partner, said at the time. "The stories of these ladies, if you hear them, will break your heart."
To qualify for the program, participants had proven in initial interviews a legitimate credible fear of returning to their home countries.
It is geared to "special populations, such as pregnant women, nursing mothers, families with very young children," said Sarah Rodriguez, an ICE spokeswoman.
Family case management cost the government $36 a day per family versus between $5-$7 per adult for intensive supervision. That compares to $319 per-person for a family detention center bed.
The Trump administration's budget request calls for spending an additional $57 million for an alternative to detention programs this year. Nearly all will go to the so-called "Intensive Supervision Appearance Program," for which GEO Group also has the contract.
The U.S. government began the long-term detention of families in 2014, responding to an influx of women and children seeking asylum from record gang violence in Central America. The following year, a federal judge ruled that children cannot be kept more than 20 days in detention centers that have not been licensed as child-care facilities. ICE has not adhered to that ruling, however. An Afghan woman was recently kept with her two children at a Texas detention lockdown for six months.
This story has been corrected to show that all participants, not 80 percent of them, had to prove in initial interviews that they had a legitimate credible fear of returning home.