ICE: More Than A Quarter Of Illegal Immigrant Families In Alternative To Detention Skip Court Hearings

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
  • A senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement official told lawmakers that “alternatives to detention” do not have a good record of ensuring migrant families show up at court hearings.
  • The absconder rate for families in ATD was 28 percent for the first 10 months of FY2018, according to ICE official Matthew Albence.
  • The Trump administration says the high rate of no-shows is one reason why the Flores Settlement Agreement should be overturned.

A significant share of illegal immigrant families released from federal detention have failed to show up for their immigration court hearings this year, a senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said Tuesday.

The family units in question are placed in programs collectively known as alternatives to detention (ATD), which allow people with pending deportation cases to avoid detention in favor of some other non-custodial monitoring. Alternatives include community monitoring through nonprofit organizations and GPS tracking with ankle or wrist bracelets.

ATD programs are frequently touted as a humane and cost-saving way to monitor migrant families while they await a decision on their asylum claims, a process that can take years. But ATD often leads to family units’ skipping immigration court hearings and, ultimately, ignoring removal orders issued in absentia, according to Matthew Albence, the executive associate director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations Division.

Between Oct. 1, 2017 and July 31, 2018 — the first 10 months of fiscal year 2018 — the absconder rate for family units in ATD was 28 percent, Albence said in prepared testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. That was significantly higher than individuals in ATD, who had an absconder rate of about 16 percent over the same time period, Albence said.

Tuesday’s Senate hearing centered on the Flores Settlement Agreement, a federal court order that governs detention policy for unaccompanied alien children and people arrested while traveling in family units. Under Flores, the government cannot keep migrant children detained with their parents for more than 20 days, forcing immigration officials to either separate families or release them pending a court date.

The Trump administration is seeking to abrogate Flores, arguing that its special treatment of families creates a “pull factor” for illegal immigration. After federal Judge Dolly Gee denied the government’s bid to revise her previous Flores rulings earlier this summer, the Trump administration proposed regulatory changes that would make it easier to keep families in detention for the entirely of their immigration court proceedings. (RELATED: Illegal Immigration By Family Units Surges To Highest-Ever August Total)

Immigration activists and civil rights groups say the administration’s focus on family detention is misplaced because ATD programs have proven effective at getting migrant families to comply with immigration court orders. As evidence, they frequently cite an Obama administration initiative known as the Family Case Management Program, in which families in certain cities were released and monitored by contracted social workers.

The contractor that administered the program claimed 99 percent of the families under its watch successfully attended their court appearances and ICE check-ins, according to a November 2017 Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report.

However, the duration of the pilot program was much shorter than the average time it takes to complete a case in immigration courts’ “non-detained” docket. That means the high success rate only covered a “very short portion” of the full timeline of the participants’ removal and asylum cases, according to Dan Cadman, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

“We don’t know, then, whether or not they did, or will, actually show up for removal … when ordered,” Cadman wrote in a June report. “After all, it’s one thing to continue reporting to your NGO contact as long as there is hope of relief from deportation, but when that hope evaporates, are they really going to stick around and report for their removal? It’s doubtful.”

Migrant families in ATD typically linger for years in immigration proceedings because they are placed in the non-detained docket, which has a backlog of more than 700,000 cases, according to Albence. By contrast, illegal immigrants in detention have an average length of stay of about 40 days before their cases are adjudicated either way, he said.

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