Trump Faces Calls to Seek Immigration Detention Alternatives

With President Donald Trump's policy of holding illegal immigrant families together in limbo and outrage at a fever pitch over the previous policy of separating parents and children, some are calling for a resurrection of an Obama-era program killed last year.

The Family Case Management Program (FCMP) was launched in 2016 with social workers supervising illegal immigrants who came across the border with their children. The participants received help with housing, health care and other needs -- plus legal assistance -- while they waited for their immigration court dates.

By April 2017, the program managed some 630 families in Chicago, Miami, New York, Los Angeles and the Baltimore-Washington area, according to the Associated Press. But the Trump administration ended it a short time later.

Catholic bishops who visited the border this week became the latest to call for its return.

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"We have some concerns about family detention," said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to the Religion News Service. "In the past, there was an alternative to detention -- family case-management programs."

Advocates note that participants in the program had a high court-attendance rate close to 100 percent and contend that it is more humane than either breaking up families or holding them together in temporary facilities set up in military facilities.

But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said the program resulted in few deportations and argued that other alternatives are preferable.

"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 spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez told LifeZette.

"Additionally, removals of individuals on ATD occur at a much higher rate than the FCMP. 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," she said.

Running Out of Options. The Trump administration is running out of options. The president reversed the previous "zero tolerance" policy after it provoked outrage over the separation of parents and children. Plan B is to keep families together, but a federal judge in Washington ruled Monday that the government cannot detain people seeking asylum merely as a deterrent.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), said court attendance is the wrong yardstick by which to measure alternatives to detention.

"The problem is that we really don't know what they were counting," she said. "What we still don't know is the ultimate outcome of those cases and if people complied with the removal order, if they got one."

Matthew O'Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, agreed. "I don't think it was particularly effective," he said.

O'Brien said the removal statistics suggest that the the FCMP did not take on illegal immigrants most likely to flee.

"I think the cases were cherry-picked, because the people who were getting it were likely to get something [from the court], so they had an interest in returning," he said.

The Alternative to Detention program favored by the Trump administration uses electronic-monitoring devices and other technology, as well as case managers, to help ensure court attendance. Participants either wear global-positioning satellite (GPS) ankle monitors, report by telephone or submit to monitoring by a cellphone application called SmartLINK.

Illegal immigrants in the program attend 99.8 percent of scheduled court hearings, according to ICE. As of Feb. 16, 77,417 illegal immigrants were in the program. At the time, only 126 were enrolled in the SmartLINK program, but an ICE spokesman told LifeZette that number since has climbed to more than 1,500.

'Extremely Expensive' Option. Despite its apparent success, O'Brien expressed skepticism that it is a viable solution for all illegal immigrants coming across the border with their children.

"These are very labor-intensive programs ... They simply are not going to have the manpower they need to do the kind of supervision they need to make it work," he said.

Added Vaughan: "It's extremely expensive. You have to have a contractor who monitors all these ankle bracelets."

And sometimes, Vaughan added, releasing illegal immigrants can have disastrous consequences. She pointed to a 2015 case in which an illegal immigrant who had been released on a $10,000 bond to await his deportation case in Mesa, Arizona.

The real challenge, Vaughan said, is to reform an asylum system that she argues has been badly abused by foreigners who have no legitimate path to immigrate to the United States. A lax standard for determining whether foreigners claiming asylum at the border have a "credible fear" of persecution in their home countries has led to sharp rise in bogus claims, Vaughan said.

She pointed to Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics showing that 53 percent of the people admitted to the United States since 2006 under the "credible-fear" standard did not submit an asylum application. So far this fiscal year, the share is 65 percent of all credible-fear cases.

"That's a very strong indication that they never intended to file an asylum claim," she said. "They were just gaming the system."

Vaughan said the administration could change the standard, but it would take time. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would have to go through a formal process of writing new rules and then train Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in applying the new standard.

O'Brien said he believes the Trump administration "backed down way too soon" on its "zero-tolerance" policy. The United States should not apologize for enforcing its own immigration law, O'Brien said.

"You have a bunch of illegal aliens running around after they're caught breaking our immigration law who have the audacity to now tell us how we are going to detain or process them," he said. "The whole thing is absurd."

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at . Follow him on .