Think Immigration: A Look Inside DHS’ Family Expedited Removal Management Program

3/13/24 AILA Doc. No. 24031300. Asylum, Expedited Removal, Removal & Relief
Image of hands.

On a Thursday morning in January, fellow University of Texas Law students and I met with a family in a parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, next to a nondescript office building. The family got out of their Uber, having traveled over 60 miles from Kennedy, Texas, to this location for their first in-person check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We were there to accompany the family through one of the Biden administration’s newest southern border policies, the Family Expedited Removal Management (FERM) program.

The program, which started in May 2023 without much news coverage or public attention, once again swept asylum-seeking families into the expedited removal process. As part of the program, the head of the family is required to wear an electronic ankle monitor, carry a mobile device that allows ICE to track the individual and is only enabled to conduct check-ins with ICE and its contracted “alternatives to detention” program known as the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP). The head of the family is also subject to a home curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and in-person reporting obligations.. This high-intensity surveillance operation occurs while the family is undergoing the expedited removal process, including up to their credible fear interview (CFI), any immigration judge reviews, and removal from the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) processes FERM cases on an extraordinarily short timeline, which includes conducting the CFI a mere 6-12 days after the family’s arrival in the United States. FERM families often do not have cell phones of their own, do not speak English, do not have their own personal modes of transportation, do not have an income or very much money, and do not have a full grasp of the legal process they have been thrust into and, I am not being hyperbolic here, upon which their very lives may depend.

Facing these challenges, families must also somehow report to their in-person check-ins with ICE, navigate their virtual check-ins with ICE via cell phone, navigate the stigma of an ankle monitor, try to find legal counsel or orientation in the mere days before their CFI with an Asylum Officer, and secure transportation to the in-person CFI (which can be up to 75 miles away from where they live). The hurried FERM process presents real challenges to securing legal orientation and representation.

In an effort to address these barriers to legal orientation, Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ) has rolled out a national hotline FERM families can call to try to get scheduled for a free legal orientation with a pro bono attorney before their CFI. This hotline number should be provided to families when they report to their first in-person check-in with ICE, which tends to occur within the first two days of their arrival with their sponsors.

Unfortunately, as the FERM program has expanded from just a handful of cities to operating in, at least, 40 cities, it has been difficult for advocates to ensure there are enough attorneys to counsel every family that calls the hotline seeking counsel.

I first learned about FERM over the summer, when AIJ reached out to the immigration nonprofit I was interning with to ask if our attorneys had capacity to take on CFI preps for FERM families in the city. The tiny, but mighty, team responded in a way that many direct services providers often do – they were so overwhelmed with the needs of the communities they were already serving, that, unfortunately, they couldn’t take on more.

In that moment, I saw an opportunity for law students like me to make a difference. In an attempt to expand the number of families AIJ can place for CFI preps, the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic and Mithoff Pro Bono Program partnered with AIJ to help counsel 28 families during the fall semester, with plans to prepare at least 9 more families for their CFIs before the end of this academic year.

It was possible for us to prepare nearly 30 families thanks to more than a dozen law students who signed up to get trained on how to prepare clients for their CFIs and a handful of dedicated, volunteer immigration attorneys willing to supervise us. Students have called FERM families all over the country to prepare them for their CFIs that were scheduled within the next few days.

The impact on both the families and the volunteers is incredibly powerful. Families are able to receive individualized legal orientation about the process and their asylum claims, and many of them have received positive CFI results. Attorneys and law students were so affected by the work they did in these clinics and the families’ stories that many of them became repeat volunteers.

As I listened to the horrifying experiences survived by the families I was counseling last semester, I considered how unconscionable it is that many families must now also survive navigating the complicated, and often hostile, immigration system in the United States without legal counsel. I hope that more attorneys and law students will consider partnering with AIJ to prepare FERM families for their CFIs to ensure that no family faces this process alone.

AILA members wanting to learn more about the FERM program and to hear about volunteer opportunities are encouraged to register for an April 4, 2024 seminar: Families in Removal Proceedings: How to Advocate in the Face of Rapid Timelines and Access to Counsel Barriers

About the Author:

Location San Antonio, Texas USA
Law School Texas
Join Date 3/7/24
Languages Spanish
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