For New Family Plan at Border, Trump Could Look to Pilot Project He Scuttled Last Year

The Trump administration must determine a plan to keep asylum-seeking families together after 20 days in detention.

Now that the horrific family separation policy at the border appears to be at an end, the Trump administration will need to figure out a plan for how to handle the asylum-seeking families it detains going forward. It can use family detention centers, but per what’s known as the Flores settlement, the government cannot keep children in those facilities for more than 20 days.

The administration’s first preference has already been established: it went to court to seek an amendment to that settlement that does allow them to hold families, together, in an incarceration setting. Another strategy used in the past by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been to place ankle monitors on parents.

But the administration has another option to consider if it chooses. A $73 million Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) pilot project, with corrections company GEO Group as lead contractor and community-based nonprofits as subcontractors, yielded 99 percent attendance at court appearances and ICE check-ins.

The Family Case Management pilot released families into the country and then surrounded them with social workers, counselors and legal assistance. It served mostly parents who were pregnant or had very young children with them. The original scope of the pilot was to serve 1,500 families in five areas – Baltimore/Washington, Chicago, Miami, New York City and Los Angeles – but that was later cut down to 800 families.

According to the 1997 Flores settlement, the U.S. can only hold children in family detention centers for up to 20 days.

Of the 954 participants in the pilot, 23 absconded after entering the country, according to an audit of the program conducted by the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security.

Last year, an Associated Press article noted the price of the program at $36 per day, well above the daily rate to operate an ankle monitor but way, way less than the hundreds per day for a detention bed.

But there is reason to doubt that the administration will revive the case management venture, because they were the ones who killed it ahead of its end date. The program was funded in September of 2015, and Trump cut it off in June of last year.

Perhaps the calculus on the ground has changed enough that the administration would support a program that had shown effective in preventing asylum-seekers from absconding. It is also possible for Congress to simply fund this program anyway, through legislation, appropriations or a combination of the two.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at