The Trump administration is shuttering a program designed to keep vulnerable asylum seekers -- mainly mothers and young children, including pregnant and nursing women -- out of detention.
The program was piloted by the Obama administration after a 2014 crisis in detention centers brought on by a surge of families and unaccompanied minors trying to cross the border with the US.
The move is the latest effort under President Donald Trump to prioritize immigration enforcement and deportations over policies he argues incentivized people trying to come to the US illegally. But critics say it will place an undue burden on traumatized families with legitimate asylum claims.
As of April 19, the Family Case Management Program had 630 families enrolled in it, but it will be phased out by June 20, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE introduced the program as a pilot in September 2015. According to an Obama administration fact sheet about the program, it specifically prioritized "families with certain vulnerabilities, including pregnant or nursing family member; those with very young children; family members with medical/mental health concerns; families who speak only indigenous languages; and other special needs."
The idea was to offer an often traumatized population an alternative to being held in crowded detention centers as they awaited the court process on their asylum claims to finish -- a process that can often take years.
A federal appellate court subsequently ruled that the US government could not hold children in detention at length, and though the ruling didn't apply to parents, the government opted to release families together rather than separate them.
Cutting the program will save $12 million a year, said ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez.
Other "alternatives to detention" cost the government less and result in a much higher number of ultimate deportations and removals than the family case program, Rodriguez said in a statement.
The change was first reported by the Associated Press.
Alternatives to detention include measures like ankle monitors, requiring in-person and telephone check-ins and home visits. It was not suggested by ICE that these families would end up back in detention.
But advocates for refugees and asylum seekers say that the alternatives can be burdensome and even painful. Archi Pyati, chief of policy and programs for the Tahirih Justice Center, which protects and advocates for immigrant women and girls fleeing violence, said that ankle monitors can cause burns, swelling and other injuries, as well as imposing a social stigma on wearers. Excessive check-in requirements, she added, can impede womens' abilities to care for their children, and none of the programs help provide counseling or legal assistance.
"These are women and children we can assume have already experienced untold hardship, violence we can't even imagine, governments that won't protect them from rape and trafficking, and they've made the arduous journey up to our country and now they are branded with an ankle monitor which makes them seem like criminals, when in fact they are refugees seeking asylum," Pyati said. "That is not the way they should be treated."