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Community-Based Programs Offer Alternative to Detention for Asylum Seekers

Community-based programs for asylum seekers are grossly underfunded, while detention and surveillance are expanding.

A man, woman and child seeking asylum walk in Eagle Pass, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border, on June 30, 2022.

This story was originally published at Prism.

CW: This article contains descriptions of violence and mentions of suicide.

Community-based programs for immigrants and asylum-seekers remain grossly underfunded despite a desperate need for their services, especially as the U.S. government drags its feet on implementing any such program on the federal level. In 2017, the Trump administration shut down the Family Case Management Program, despite over 99% of the asylum-seekers complying with their immigration hearings and appointments with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, costing a fraction of detention. So far, the Biden administration has floated a new case management pilot program (CMPP) for which Congress has appropriated funds, but the program has not yet taken off the ground.

The number of immigrants detained in the U.S. has almost doubled since the beginning of the Biden administration and has been steadily increasing since then — from 14,000 to 30,000. Although more immigrants and asylum-seekers are now in detention, authorities have placed 343,000 immigrants under “alternatives to detention,” (ATD) a stunning increase from the 86,000 figure at the beginning of the Biden administration. These “alternatives” have been dubbed e-carceration by advocates — only another form of imprisonment.

In March, the Biden administration released its proposed budget for the fiscal year 2023, which contemplates an increase for ICE’s alternatives-to-detention program, mostly composed of electronic shackles and a smartphone app that uses geolocation and facial and voice recognition to track individuals. An ICE spokesperson stated in an email that “ICE is committed to protecting privacy rights, and civil rights and liberties of all participants within the Alternatives to Detention Program.” However, a report by a dozen immigrant rights organizations released in May concluded that ICE’s electronic surveillance apparatus is still “a digital form of detention and the state’s constant reminder of the lack of autonomy immigrants have over their own bodies and futures.”

However, ICE-based alternatives to detention aren’t the only option to address the needs of immigrants and asylum-seekers. Community-based services—which include legal representation, housing, and referrals for medical services, English language classes, and assistance with obtaining identity documents, among other components — are primarily provided by nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteers, donations, and other forms of funding. Their services, however, are far exceeded by the need.

“There is a huge network of organizations that do this work, and yes, they are underfunded,” said Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director at Detention Watch Network, a national coalition working to abolish immigration detention in the U.S. “What we are seeing in the budget is funding for ICE’s ATDs, not for the things we want.”

True alternatives to detention

In October, Paul White, a Black bisexual immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, was slated for 45 days in solitary confinement at the Caroline Detention Center in Virginia. According to Margaret Evans of Free Them All VA, a coalition of immigrant rights advocates working on the campaign to release White, he was placed in isolation for speaking out about the abuses he and other detainees had endured from guards. In one instance, he was pinned to a wall by an ICE officer because of White’s skin color and put in solitary confinement when he complained, said Evans.

White, who has attempted suicide at least once in detention, was scheduled to be deported this past May to his homeland, where same-sex relations are criminalized and whose name he prefers to withhold for his own safety. White has been threatened with murder because of his sexual orientation, said Evans. White suffers from Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, depression, and anxiety, but in detention, ICE has routinely neglected his health and mental health conditions.

White’s mistreatment in immigration detention is an all-too-common experience, especially for Black immigrants. The U.S. immigration detention system is rife with medical neglect, sexual assault, practices that amount to torture and inhumane treatment, scarcity of basic necessities like food, violent retaliation by guards, and death. As of Sept. 6, two detainees have died under ICE custody this year.

Asylum-seekers who are able to establish their credible fear of persecution or torture in their home country before the immigration court end up in detention facilities if they do not have a connection or sponsor in the U.S. Nonprofits provide shelter and case management services to some of these people, whose asylum cases can take about five years to resolve, but far more are left to fend for themselves due to the severe lack of resources and funding most nonprofits experience.

“People need time to heal from the trauma of what happened in their home countries, in the route, at the border, and in the interior, [which] are four very distinct traumas that happen to asylum-seekers,” said Ryan Smith, housing and case management program director at the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants (ICDI), a nonprofit in Chicago that provides food, housing, and case management support for asylum-seekers.

Often cited as a model for “true” alternatives to detention, ICDI has operated for over a decade in Chicago, where it currently supports 12 asylum-seekers in five community programs, which include individuals and whole families. ICDI provides housing and an array of other social services and referrals for at least a year. Asylum-seekers are forced to wait at least five months after filing their asylum claim in court before they are allowed to apply for work permits, which can take up to an additional four months to be granted.

The number of asylum-seekers in need is far larger than ICDI can cover. All the detained asylum-seekers and 30,000 immigrants currently incarcerated in the U.S. — the vast majority of whom have no criminal record or committed only minor offenses, including traffic violations — could be housed in Chicago. According to the 2020 Census, 7.9% or about 180,000 of Cook County’s housing units were vacant. Other big cities in the country have similar rates of vacancies. However, Chicago has not facilitated the release of any of these residences to ICDI or other nonprofits, or connected them with owners who could volunteer their units for at least a year, said Smith.

“I have been begging the city for housing vouchers [for asylum-seekers] and trying to get them to make some kind of movement on this, but there has been none that I’m aware of,” he said.

The Illinois government has responded to the arrival of asylum-seekers transported on buses from Texas by providing them with shelter in hotels. However, those asylum-seekers have not received case management or other social services, said Smith. Advocates in other cities have raised the same complaints.

New York City provides shelter for asylum-seekers arriving from the border, but not much more. Power Malu, a community organizer who runs the group Artists, Athletes, and Activists in New York, told Democracy Now! that weeks after their arrival, asylum-seekers have not received “any type of resources” from the New York City government apart from food and a place to stay.

“There’s a lot of miscommunication or misinformation: that the city is doing so much for these migrants, and they are well-off,” Malu said on the show. “That is not the case.”

Racially biased and for profit

The e-carceration strategy espoused by the Biden administration has expanded what is already the most extensive immigration detention system in the world, comprising over 200 facilities across the country. Advocates are frustrated by the expansion of a system that’s proven to be riddled with inefficiency, abuse, and neglect, as well as costly to maintain. In contrast, a report by the National Immigrant Justice Center, an organization working for human rights and access to justice for immigrants, concluded there’s substantial evidence that community-based programs are safer than detention, vastly less expensive, and far more effective at ensuring compliance with government-imposed requirements. For example, a pilot program run by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service from May to October 2015 reported spending $50 a day to provide housing and case management services for an entire family, while the daily cost of detention for an entire family was approximately $319 per individual.

Frustratingly, while community-based services have proven to be more convenient than detention, they haven’t been pursued beyond a pilot program within the U.S. federal budget. Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said that racism and nativism, along with profiteering, are “the major forces that have driven the expansion of detention and, alongside it, surveillance and monitoring programs in immigration enforcement.”

Racial exclusion has always been an essential component of U.S. immigration policies, even after the formal end of racial quotas for immigrants in 1965. Mass imprisonment of immigrants began in the early 1980s coinciding with a wave of Haitians refugees, overwhelmingly Black, fleeing from a U.S.-backed dictatorship. To this day, immigration laws and policies disproportionately criminalize, detain, mistreat, and deport immigrants of color.

The racist hostility of immigration policies has translated into ICE’s alternatives to detention. A report by the Cardozo School of Law and the nonprofits Freedom for Immigrants and Immigrant Defense Project concluded that “electronic ankle shackles amplify the larger system of mass surveillance of communities of color.”

The U.S. government continues to rely on this racist approach while more humane and less expensive policies are available. The now-shuttered Family Case Management Program yielded almost total compliance of its participants while costing approximately $38 per day per family — a sharp contrast with the nearly $800 per day to keep a family in detention. A Women’s Refugee Commission analysis concluded that the program — which served 952 families and over 2,000 total participants—could easily grow case management alternatives while reducing costly and harmful detention capacity: “The only serious constraint on the scalability of case management alternatives is political will.”

Who manages asylum-seeker and immigrant case management matters

But while the Family Case Management Program was successful in keeping more families and individuals from being detained, the organization managing it was not ideal. GEO Care, a division of GEO Group, one of the largest private prison corporations in the U.S., won the bid to run the program’s case management services, despite having no experience in that specific area. In a fact sheet, Geo Care stated that to manage its current alternatives to detention, the company’s own case managers “take tremendous pride in assisting families by connecting them with vital social services” in partnership with community-based organizations and not-for-profit partners. But its track record is far from optimal. “GEO Care was forced to reduce the number of families it could serve, increasing the program’s cost per family,” according to the Women’s Refugee Commission’s findings, which suggested that “the decision to contract to GEO Care may have detracted from some of the program’s successes.”

GEO Group, however, has been able to obtain a presence in every link of the immigration enforcement chain—from detention to electronic monitoring to case management. BI Inc, a subsidiary of GEO Group, is the only provider of e-shackles and the SmartLink app for ICE. The company has consistently been granted generous government contracts. The company donated $4 million to political campaigns in the last two election cycles while giving $4.7 million for lobbying efforts in Congress since 2019. GEO Group’s most frequently lobbied bill this year is the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics.

“GEO Group is in the business of detaining people, and alternatives to detention is another revenue stream for them, so you can see that the same ideology with which they operate detention centers is going to transfer to any sort of alternative they operate,” said Ghandehari from Detention Watch Network.

In spite of this backdrop, where nativism and profiteering shape immigration policies, there is a ray of hope. Pressured by advocates, Congress appropriated $5 million in the fiscal year 2021 budget for the CMPP for certain eligible asylum-seekers and immigrants in removal proceedings and an additional $15 million in the 2022 budget.

The program board will not include ICE, which advocates said is already a victory. Instead, it will consist of the Department of Homeland Security Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, along with three nonprofits with ample experience in case management programs: Church World Service, Catholic Charities USA, and The Center for Migration Studies of New York.

The program’s services would include human trafficking screenings, legal and cultural orientation, referrals to health care and mental health services, school enrollment, and resources for individuals returning to their home countries. It’s projected to start by the end of the year with the goal of serving at least 700 people in the first round, said Mary Elizabeth Margolis, senior director of external communications of Church World Service. However, it is not certain that it will receive additional funding for the fiscal year 2023.

The measure of success for this kind of program “should be the extent to which the person’s full sets of needs are addressed, allowing them to have what they need to integrate into their communities,” said Altman.

“When people live in a place of certainty and stability, the compliance rates come along because people are highly incentivized to go to their immigration court proceedings,” Altman said.

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