ICE, family separation, immigration: What can asylum-seekers expect?

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Nearly 590,000 migrants from Central America arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border over the past 10 months – more arrivals from a place other than Mexico than in any of the past 20 years. What happens to them when they get here depends on fast-changing policies, as well as whether they arrived alone or with a family. Many have been processed by federal authorities, then released into the U.S. to wait for immigration courts to rule on their asylum claims, a process that can take years. Others have been sent to Mexico to wait there.

How does all this work? As with most things immigration-related, the answer is complicated.

What happens when migrants cross illegally into the United States at the southern border? 

In some cases, migrants enter illegally with the goal of avoiding immigration authorities, and living and working in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants. But other migrants surrender on purpose to Border Patrol agents in hopes of making an asylum claim. Many of these migrants are parents with children.

After they are in Border Patrol custody, they’re placed in vans and trucks and taken to processing centers along the border. Officials collect biographic information, including names, birth dates, home countries, as well as fingerprints to run background checks on each person.

The wait time in holding facilities can vary. Some migrants have been released in a matter of hours. Some have waited months. They’ll be released or transferred based on whether they are part of a family unit, an unaccompanied child, or a single adult. 

The government may transfer the migrants to Department of Justice facilities if they face criminal charges, such as illegal reentry, and bed space plays a role, too, says Memphis, Tennessee immigration attorney Lily Axelrod, who works extensively with asylum cases. “Sometimes folks are just released because there isn’t room to process them or the closest ICE facilities are full,” she said.

Migrants who are claiming asylum may also go through screening interviews from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to determine whether they have a credible fear of returning to their country. Historically, most migrants have passed initial credible-fear interviews.

The Trump administration has taken many steps to discourage migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S. Among them: the Trump administration has required that migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border from Central American countries must first apply for asylum in another country before requesting protection in the U.S. The policy, which was implemented on July 16, is allowed to be practiced while immigrant rights groups challenge the policy in court.

At immigration authorities’ discretion, single adults and family units can be enrolled into the Remain in Mexico policy, where they are returned to Mexican cities along the border. 

More than 20,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico so far this year under the program, according to Mexico’s Interior Ministry. 

What happens when asylum seekers and other unauthorized immigrants are released into the U.S.?

They typically join family members somewhere in the United States and wait for an immigration court hearing, which can take years. Although wait times vary by state, immigration court cases are pending an average of more than 700 days, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University in New York. In Memphis Immigration Court, for instance, individual asylum hearings were scheduled this summer for as late as February 2023.

How does the government monitor asylum seekers or other unauthorized immigrants who are not detained?

Some undocumented immigrants have virtually no contact with immigration authorities. But in other cases, immigration officials monitor asylum-seekers closely.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency runs an “alternatives to detention” program known as Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, or ISAP. 

The agency estimates that in the 2019 fiscal year, ending in September, it will have supervised about 82,000 migrants on a daily basis through the program, which has a budget of $184.4 million. A private contractor, BI Industries Inc., monitors migrants through check-ins at ICE offices, in-person home visits, telephonic monitoring and electronic ankle bracelets.

ICE determines how a migrant will be monitored based on factors including flight risk and likelihood of showing up to court.

Gabriela Castañeda, a migrant in the ISAP program, always keeps her cellphone close, but on Tuesdays she doesn’t dare make a call.

That’s because one Tuesday per month – she never knows which – she receives an automated call asking her to repeat five numbers and registering her voice. If she doesn’t answer or call back within minutes, she said, ICE starts “calling like crazy” and then begins robodialing her family and friends.

“They treat you like you are an object,” she said. 

Castañeda, an organizer for the nonprofit Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, Texas, applied five years ago to legalize her status in the U.S. after arriving as a teenager; her family fled extreme violence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She is now the mother of three children who are U.S. citizens and has been waiting to see an immigration judge ever since.

The 82,000 or so migrants in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program program represent a small percentage of the unauthorized immigrants who are in contact with the federal government and the immigration court system. In fiscal 2018, there were about 2.6 million people on ICE’s “non-detained” docket, including asylum seekers and other immigrants who were released from detention with final deportation orders or who were awaiting court decisions on their immigration status.

What do asylum seekers do while they wait? 

Most go to work. Asylum seekers can apply for a work permit after 150 days in the country. The government will grant the work permit only after 180 days have passed. Winning a work permit is difficult, but many asylum seekers find jobs anyway.

Kathryn Maceri, an immigration attorney in Memphis, Tennessee, says working without permission can hurt some immigrants who are seeking certain types of immigration relief. 

“But it’s almost expected for asylum seekers to work without permission,” she said. “The (immigration) judges don’t usually ask. The judges don’t hold it against them.”

However, immigrants under the ICE supervision program sometimes face forceful questions about whether they’re working, she said. In some cases, the government contractor overseeing the supervision will threaten to place them back in detention, she said.

Many Central Americans are arriving with their children. What happens to the minors?  

In many cases, children are subject to the same immigration court proceedings as their parents. If a judge orders an adult deported, the parent’s minor children may be deported, too.

While immigration cases are pending, many newly arrived Central Americans enroll their children in local public schools. Under the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe, governments must provide all immigrant students a basic education, generally through 12th grade. 

Unaccompanied children may end up in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement while case managers locate the child’s closest relative in the U.S., to place them with that family. Children can be held for months while awaiting release from the agency. 

How likely are asylum seekers to win their immigration cases?

Not very likely. Although the rate at which immigration judges grant asylum varies by judge, the federal Executive Office for Immigration Review, a branch of the Justice Department, reports the median grant rate for courts nationwide is 11%. Only 12 of the nation’s 62 immigration courts grant asylum more than 20% of the time.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – 42-year-old Daniel Matias Juan of Guatemala poses for a portrait on June 27, 2019, shortly after a judge in Memphis Immigration Court denied his asylum claim and ordered him and his 16-year-old son Bryan deported. The father said he trusted God would help him win the case on appeal, and he also counted on the help of his lawyer, Kathryn Maceri. "I know that there’s a hope, a hope for me that I can win the case...So I feel good," he said.


MEMPHIS, Tenn. – 42-year-old Daniel Matias Juan of Guatemala poses for a portrait on June 27, 2019, shortly after a judge in Memphis Immigration Court…
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – 42-year-old Daniel Matias Juan of Guatemala poses for a portrait on June 27, 2019, shortly after a judge in Memphis Immigration Court denied his asylum claim and ordered him and his 16-year-old son Bryan deported. The father said he trusted God would help him win the case on appeal, and he also counted on the help of his lawyer, Kathryn Maceri. “I know that there’s a hope, a hope for me that I can win the case…So I feel good,” he said.

Joe Rondone, USA TODAY Network

What are the costs for detaining or monitoring unauthorized immigrants?

Alternatives to detention are far less expensive than housing migrants in detention facilities, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. The program costs less than $5 per day per migrant versus about $137 per day per migrant in detention, according to the DHS’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget. Family detention costs upwards of $237 per day.

What are the most common destinations for Central American migrants?

California and Texas are among the most common settlement states for Central American immigrants, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report based on 2015 American Community Survey data. 

More recently, the Office of Refugee Resettlement reported where unaccompanied minors – overwhelmingly from Central America – are being released to their sponsors. From October 2018 to May 2019, the most common states for resettlement were traditional immigrant destinations: Texas, California, Florida and New York, followed by Maryland and Virginia. Rounding out the top 10 are New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

How often do migrants abandon their court cases and disappear?

Statistics compiled by TRAC through May showed that among 47,000 of the newly arriving families seeking refuge in the country, six of every seven families released from detention showed up for their initial court hearing.

According to the Executive Office of Immigration Review, 44 percent of removal cases – involving the population of all migrants in immigration proceedings – end with an “in absentia” order of deportation, because a migrant fails to show up to court.

David López crossed the U.S. border in December with his 10-year-old son Miguel. ICE gave him a “Notice to Appear” in Virginia, where he planned to live with his brother. López showed up to his first hearing in January; another is scheduled for mid-August.

He said his “Notice to Appear” is essentially a deportation order, since his odds of winning his court case are so low. 

“I don’t want to show up, but if I don’t, they’ll come for me,” he said.

How many immigrants are being detained?

The Department of Homeland Security fiscal 2019 budget included $2.8 billion for 52,000 detention beds. In May, ICE reported holding 52,398 people in custody. ICE detention space includes 49,500 adult beds and 2,500 family beds. The government set a “target” for ICE detentions in fiscal 2018 of 51,379, and by this year had more than achieved it.

Though ICE operates some detention centers at the border, many ICE detention facilities are in the U.S. interior and hold immigrants who were picked up at local jails, through fugitive arrests or through other methods. The ICE numbers do not include migrants in Border Patrol holding facilities.

How much of this is subject to change?

A lot of it, and the Trump administration makes changes all the time.

“You wake up in the morning and Twitter – the law’s changing through Twitter,” said Maceri, the immigration attorney. “I check articles – this morning this is what it is. It might be different by this afternoon. You never know what’s going to be applied.”

One week. Thousands of migrants. A system on the brink of collapse.

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