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The Sudden Release of Asylum Seekers Highlights the Trump Administration's Failure to Respond to a Surge in Family Arrivals

Hundreds of family asylum seekers were released in Arizona this week without shelter, overwhelming churches and non-profits as communities scrambled to accommodate them.
A Honduran man walks with his daughter near Metropolitan Detention Center on October 2nd, 2018, in Los Angeles, California.

Shortly after he was released on bond from six months in ICE custody, a Honduran man walks with his daughter near Metropolitan Detention Center on October 2nd, 2018, in Los Angeles, California.

As detention centers reach capacity and the Trump administration struggles to respond to a surge of family arrivals at the United States–Mexico border, the government has begun releasing hundreds of asylum seekers without first ensuring that they have access to shelter or transportation.

This release represents a breach in Immigration and Customs Enforcement protocol. Normally, ICE agents would first ensure that released asylum seekers have transportation to their court date and would work to ensure that the new arrivals could connect with relatives or other supporters within the country.

Unable to handle the increase in family arrivals in recent months, ICE and the Department of Homeland Security have admitted that normal practices and policies have collapsed beneath the weight of clogged systems and packed detention centers. "This is the start of a dam breaking. You'll start to see this all across the southern border soon," an anonymous DHS official told NBC. ICE's release of migrants in Arizona has put enormous pressure on churches, shelters, and other non-profit groups seeking to support the wave of families now seeking refuge, NBC reports.

When Customs and Border Protection reported a significant increase in family arrivals between July and August, Trump administration officials attributed the increase to "loopholes" in the country's immigration laws. CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told the Associated Press that the surge in families was "a direct response to gaps in the legal framework."

In general, Trump administration officials believe that Reno v. Flores, a Supreme Court decision from the 1990s that limits the detention of migrant children to 20 days, is encouraging migrants to travel as families. The idea, popular among conservatives, is that migrants believe that arriving with children will prevent them from being detained for long amounts of time.

However, experts contest the claim that legal loopholes explain the increase in family arrivals. Sarah Bermeo, a public policy professor at Duke University and expert in Central America, says that, while "loopholes" might drive some families to migrate, shocking rates of violence in Central America—and drug gangs' growing propensity to threaten children directly—does much more to explain the increase in families fleeing the region. Bermeo points to the fact that family migration has increased in countries like El Salvador and Honduras, where violence is rampant, but not in other Central American countries with similar economies. "There are countries in Central America that are equally poor, but not equally violent, and they are not sending families in nearly the same numbers," Bermeo says.

Yet the Trump administration, committed to the conviction that the Flores court case is creating a "pull factor" for families, has sought ways to close the loopholes and ensure the detention and deportation of migrants, even if they arrive in families.

The most visible attempt to deter families was the administration's now-infamous "zero-tolerance" policy. The policy sought to close the Flores loophole by separating parents from their children so that the parents could be detained indefinitely while they were being prosecuted. The zero-tolerance policy crumbled in July after public outrage and judicial action forced the administration to abandon the policy and ensure that families would no longer be separated.

But the administration has now announced its intention to attempt to circumvent the Flores decision and begin detaining parents with their children indefinitely.

ICE's abrupt release of hundreds of families may well be a response to a backlog in the system. But it's also likely to feature in the administration's arguments against Flores, as the court case's 20-day provision is what forced ICE to release the families. ICE gave the released families ankle bracelets to track them as they await their court dates.

According to Bermeo, the government's investment in detention and deterrence may do little to stem the flow of family arrivals. She says that a more workable solution might be to invest in the resettlement of asylum seekers, rather than detention or apprehension. That way, asylum seekers and migrants could be tracked without creating immense pressure on border authorities and detention centers. But it's unlikely that the Trump administration will commit any resources to resettlement; just last month, the administration announced it would cut its refugee resettlement quota to a historic low.