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  • A Call to President Obama: Ensure the Protection of Asylum Seekers Before the Trump Administration Takes Over

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    Undoubtedly, the results of Tuesday’s election have changed what it means to be an immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeker in the United States. Given the rhetoric of deportation and exclusion that were often at the heart of the Trump campaign’s promises on immigration policy, we at the Women’s Refugee Commission sincerely hope that those promises will not turn out be the reality of a Trump Administration.

    But while some uncertainty remains over what immigration and refugee policy will look like in the coming years, President Obama still has one final opportunity to ensure that American values to protect those seeking safety at our borders are upheld not only in the next two months, but throughout the transition to a new administration. The following are just a snapshot — in a broad landscape of pressing immigration issues — of steps the Administration should immediately implement:

    • Respect family unity, and urge an incoming administration to do the same. Immigration enforcement has — despite the President’s promises — long torn apart families. As immigration measures increasingly turned toward border enforcement in recent years, families have found themselves separated by border agents and funneled into separate custody and immigration tracks, unable to communicate with one another from detention or pursue their legal cases together. Imagine a mother fleeing her country with her six year old child, only to have her taken away at the border with no recourse on how to locate or reunite with her. The Administration must take steps to protect family unity at the border, and implement policies that can facilitate contact and reunification of separated family members wherever possible.
    • Release women and children in family detention into alternative to detention programs. The institution of family detention, long contested in legal battles since the Administration resurrected the practice in 2014, is costly to American taxpayers and traumatic for the women and children detained there — the vast majority of whom have demonstrated that they have bona fide asylum claims. The federal committee of a wide range of experts appointed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) itself issued as its top recommendation in a lengthy report on urgent improvements needed in current facilities, that the Administration should generally end the practice of detaining families. Where needed, ICE has always had the means to enroll families into a spectrum of alternatives to detention (ATD) that have widely shown to be far more cost-effective while still serving the government’s purpose of ensuring compliance with immigration requirements.
    • Invest in the Family Case Management Program (FCMP): A year ago, ICE began a pilot to formally create a government-operated case-management ATD program, in which those enrolled are supported in compliance with their immigration requirements through regular required check-ins with case managers. Similar, non-government funded programs have long demonstrated high rates of success, with those enrolled more likely to understand their rights, responsibilities, and find ways to access critically needed private or pro bono counsel. Although it should contract directly with the non-profit organizations providing these services instead of the current private prison company GeoCare, the new FCMP still represents an important model that the government should ensure continues and expands in a new administration.
    • Halt the current expansion of the immigration detention system. In what was already a more than $2 billion, 34,000 detention bed system, ICE recently began operating at yet even more detention facilities, even when it is unclear whether those facilities can meet its own detention standards, be Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) compliant, and ensure the safety of the population detained there. This expansion continues the fact that ICE already has plenty of immigration detention bed space but continues to follow Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies that prioritize the detention of what are largely asylum seekers arriving at the southern U.S. border. Earlier this year, WRC visited four different adult detention centers to examine conditions and impact of DHS policies on adult women asylum seekers. We found women from Central America and around the world locked up for having sought refuge at the border, separated from their families, traumatized by their detention conditions and facing only uncertainty about whether they may someday be released even after having established that they are bona fide asylum seekers. The expansion is particularly jarring considering it includes at least one facility that the Justice Department itself ceased using for incarceration.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. The Obama Administration should use its final days in office to send a clear message that as a nation we can enforce our borders, create intelligent priorities, and respect the right to apply for asylum. While we fear what will happen come January, what is certain is that the current administration has one last chance to reverse course and do right by the countless women and families in detention today.