If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to bring America to its feet screaming — where that immovable red line in the sand is — it seems safe to say that the past week has given us the answer: images and audio of crying migrant children, forcibly separated from their parents and locked away in detention camps on U.S. soil.
President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” on immigration, which mandated that every illegal immigrant apprehended at the border be prosecuted and split from their children in the process, brought with it a media maelstrom the likes of which his already provocative administration had not seen previously.
So great was the backlash that, after days of off-the-rails White House press briefings, tearful nightly newscasts and top Cabinet officials having their dinners crashed by protesters, Trump finally caved to mounting pressure and signed an executive order designed to keep children with their parents, contradicting his previous assertions that “only Congress” could rectify the broken system.
In addition to casting a bright spotlight on the Trump White House, the resulting media frenzy also triggered a slew of charitable donations to nonprofits and legal aid groups working to help the affected families. One of those organizations was the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, which received a record-breaking $18 million in contributions thanks to a viral Facebook campaign.
Nate Roter, a post-release case manager at RAICES, said in an interview that the organization plans to use the money to staff up — hiring many more attorneys, social workers and legal assistants. But while it was images of children in chain link cages that set off the fundraising boon, Roter said that RAICES plans to expand in large part to help detained adult immigrants — where the demand is and always has been the greatest.
“That is the part that I don’t want people to forget, and I really don’t want the media to forget,” Roter said. “Ever since family detention started, it’s just sucked so much of the attention away from the larger issue of immigrant detention as a whole, and the obstacles that single adults in detention face, where access is much more difficult and the conditions are often much more restrictive than family detention.”
Roter, who is based in San Antonio, said that more than 16,000 immigrants are being detained in the state of Texas every day. If they are pursuing an asylum claim, those individuals will often be released from detention into the care of a sponsor — likely a family member, friend or church community — while their case is being adjudicated, a process that can take months or even years. But many who come enter the country without children — mostly adults — will spend the entirety of their case in detention.
“They’re really just brick-and-mortar prisons,” Roter said. “You meet with someone in a kind of echoey, concrete room, and you’re much more limited in your access. It’s much harder to access legal services in adult detention — you can’t just walk in and see a lawyer; you’re lucky to have a lawyer who’s trying to see you.”
Ariel Prado, a program manager at the Innovation Law Lab, said that while the recent surge in energy and attention surrounding immigration is a positive development, he, too, hopes that the conversation will shift to detention in general, “... and this idea that detention is a reasonable place to be putting immigrants in lockup indefinitely.”
“All of the parents whose children were abducted are now in adult detention, and that’s a terrible, terrible place to be,” Prado, who is based in Georgia, said. “The pain of being in a detention center where guards are ridiculing you, where judges are telling you you have no case ... there’s really no way to tell when you’re going to be released.”
“Family detention is terrible, but we can’t advocate solely for the end of family detention — we should be looking at ending immigrant detention as a whole and not lose track of that.”
Prado said that one of the men he works with is pursuing asylum in the U.S. after being forced to flee his home in Central America for protesting the government there. In a rare instance, after reviewing the man’s case, the U.S. Board of Appeals recommended that he be granted asylum — a recommendation that the judge presiding over the case chose to deny.
“The judge said ‘I’m going on vacation, I’ll have my decision when I come back,’” Prado said. “The man waited three weeks, another three weeks, finally after six weeks the judge issued a decision — asylum denied.”
At that point, Prado added, the man wanted to “give up.”
“It’s punishment as a form of deterrence, and it’s wrapped up in the political culture of this country,” he said. “We want to treat [migration] like it’s the sum of individual decisions, but it’s a social issue. And if our response to that issue is to throw people in prison, because we think that every single person will then make a different decision on an individual level, we’re not approaching it seriously.”
According to the FY18 budget released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it costs an average of $133.99 a day to maintain one adult detention bed. In family centers, the cost is much higher, at an estimated $319 a day, CNBC reported. Although Trump’s newly signed executive order aims to keep families together, a shortage of beds in those family facilities has led the government to construct makeshift tents to house separated children where beds can cost as much as $775 per person per night.
While Roter said that he’s not betting on a sudden pivot to a compassionate approach to immigration under the current administration, he said that he will “continue to scream and yell that [the existing system] is inhumane and unnecessary, and a huge waste of time and money and resources.”
“We can be doing all of this without detaining people,” he added. “Family detention is terrible, but we can’t advocate solely for the end of family detention. We should be looking at ending immigrant detention as a whole and not lose track of that.”