1 year ago, Trump got rid of a wildly successful immigration program that didn’t lock people up

The Trump administration is pretending it didn't have a choice to separate families.

A boy holds a toy truck up to Border Patrol agents as they detain him with his father near the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, TX, on June 12. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
A boy holds a toy truck up to Border Patrol agents as they detain him with his father near the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, TX, on June 12. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

When President Donald Trump conceded defeat Wednesday on his preferred policy of splitting up migrant families, he insisted it is still necessary to keep those families imprisoned ahead of trial.

But Trump’s team knows better. It ended a program that was keeping families together, free, and compliant with their court dates and Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) check-ins just a year ago.

The reasons Trump staff gave for ending ICE’s Family Case Management Program (FCMP) pilot barely a year after it launched expose, again, the administration’s serial lying about the motives undergirding its deportation campaign. That program served roughly the same population currently targeted by Trump’s zero-tolerance policy: Adults with children who claim asylum but enter the country in between official U.S. ports.

Even though FCMP was delivering a higher compliance rate than other “alternatives to detention” (ATD) systems like ankle monitors and random house visits, and doing so at a fraction of the cost of keeping people locked up pending trial, Trump’s ICE leaders pulled the plug.


The reason? Too many families turned out to have legitimate arguments for obtaining legal status in the U.S. Though Trump and his loyal GOP colleagues now insist family detention is necessary because people won’t show up for court otherwise, the FCMP was delivering near-perfect compliance from immigrant families – it just wasn’t getting enough of them deported.

“Since the inception of FCMP, there have only been 15 removals from this program, as opposed to more than 2,200 from ATD,” ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said in June 2017. “By discontinuing FCMP, ICE will save more than $12 million a year — money which can be utilized for other programs which more effectively allow ICE to discharge its enforcement and removal responsibilities.

It was the kind of blandly frank statement that tends to skid by in the bombastic, gaudy Trump era. But Rodriguez was openly saying that a system that delivers good results isn’t a good system unless the results it delivers are deportations.

She was also warping the stats dramatically. FCMP was barely a year off the ground and had served fewer than 1,000 total migrants by the time she cited that state. ATD had been running for close to a decade in various forms, with tens of thousands of people enrolled each year over that span. It is an illogical comparison that offers no actual information.


Rodriguez’s boss Thomas Homan preferred to emphasize the costs of the program, which used social workers employed by private prison firm GEO Group to facilitate families in both settling in to work and live, and ensure they appeared as required for immigration proceedings tied to asylum claims and other vectors toward legal status.

“So when you look at the cost, you know, an average day on the family case management program is $35, almost $36 a day” while ankle monitor ATD runs about $4 per person per day, Homan told members of the House Appropriations Committee in June 2017. “I think as long as it doesn’t change the metrics of who has shown up in court, as long as they both are equally successful and one is $4 and the other one is $36, we decided that we were going to go with the cheaper alternative.”

But it does “change the metrics of who shows up in court.” About 5 percent of ATD migrants absconded from the program in 2012, the most recent year for which data is public. Another 4 percent ended up arrested by other law enforcement agencies while on the program. Just 2 percent of FCMP participants absconded.

Homan was likely invoking the near-identical rates at which people in each program showed up in immigration court: 99.6 percent for the ankle-monitored crowd, and 100 percent for those paired with caseworkers. But either way the programs prove that Trump and his pals – even the ones who acted scandalized about family separation but then showed up to carry water for the president Wednesday as he prepared his strategic-retreat Executive Order – know full well that migrants can be released on their own recognizance without ghosting on the feds.

And if ICE wants to save money, detaining families under Trump’s new self-own of an order ain’t the way. Daily cost figures on ICE detention vary a bit from source to source, but the cheapest credible estimate you’ll find is $159 per person per day for family detention, or four times the FCMP rate. Trump’s Wednesday order also makes clear that he expects other agencies including the military to contribute space to the family detention camps project, with ICE on the hook for unknown costs tied to that repurposing of institutional space.

While Trump’s functionaries have been happy to shift the goalposts repeatedly from costs to stats to the need to send a deterrent message south to others eager to flee violence in destabilized Central American countries, the rump reality of the thing doesn’t flicker around so easily.


FCMP was cheaper. It was more effective. It was ended. None of what Trump says is necessary is actually necessary to achieve the goals he claims to pursue when he’s behind a White House desk with loyal senators alongside him.

The only rationale that actually does add up, consistently, is that Trump and Stephen Miller and the rest are aching to punish migrants for daring to seek safety inside the U.S.

The new policy still fits their real goal: To punish and terrorize families in the hope that fewer would view escape to the United States as a superior option to the brutality they were fleeing back home. We will continue to broadcast images of U.S. officials terrorizing children and families to the world.

The White House is still committed to locking up desperate families in prison camps along the border to send a grim message. It’s just losing its grip on the bizarre spin that its conscious choices weren’t really choices at all.