Family Separation and Detention Funding Recommendations

Publication date: 
August 2018


The current administration has adopted new policies aimed at deterring legal migration to the United States, including barring entry to those seeking protection from violence and persecution. These policies build on a decades-long effort to criminalize immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, which accelerated after the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Forcibly separating parents from their children and eliminating long-established grounds for asylum such as protection for individuals fleeing domestic violence are the latest tactics in an ongoing campaign against these vulnerable populations. These tactics advance a vision of America that runs counter to core philanthropic values. They unfairly paint those seeking refuge on our southern border as criminals and burdens to our society. And they cause needless and profound trauma for children and families, creating a humanitarian crisis that resulted in widespread public outcry and compelled many foundations to mount an urgent response.

Current Policy and Its Impact

Seeking to quell the uproar, the administration on June 20th issued an executive order to detain family members together indefinitely but did nothing to reunite separated children with their parents. Under a court order arising out of federal litigation, the government then reunified many of these families. Some reunified families are now being held together in family detention, while others have been released to local communities across the United States. According to the administration, hundreds more families remain separated and “ineligible” for reunification. This designation is used by the administration in an inconsistent manner across a variety of circumstances, including for parents with certain types of alleged charges and when a parent has been deported to their home country and their children remain in government custody or living with relatives in the United States. Hundreds of parents have been deported without an opportunity to speak to their children or make plans for their care and custody. These parents run the risk of being permanently separated if parental rights are not re-established and they face steep if not impassable obstacles to regaining custody given the cost of contesting such a decision given the distance, linguistic barriers, and legal complexity, among other factors. Due to the lack of transparency and the quickly evolving situation, the figures for each of these categories have been changing continuously.

How Philanthropy Can Help

Foundations and individual donors can play an important role in supporting short-, mid-, and longer-term strategies to address this evolving situation including legal representation, impact litigation, social and mental health services, organizing, policy advocacy, and narrative and strategic communications. Given the unpredictable policy landscape and the significant demands on the field, general support grants provide maximum impact because they provide grantees the flexibility to pivot quickly and address emerging needs. To the extent possible, funders should consider adopting streamlined application and reporting processes for these grants. The following top-line funding recommendations are based on point-in-time analysis.

I. Legal and Complementary Services

A. For parents and families in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)  custody

  • Support nonprofits that serve individuals in immigration detention to add experienced attorneys and paralegals to their staff. Additional legal services capacity is critically needed to mentor or supervise pro bono and volunteer lawyers, pursue litigation to challenge the prolonged detention of parents and children, and develop legal strategies, at the appellate and federal court levels, to respond to the complexity of these cases due to the application of new aggressive policies.   
  • Fund national pro bono attorney networks to deploy attorneys to frontline organizations that are engaged in complex litigation to support detained clients and their families.  
  • Invest in the creation or expansion of bond funds to help reduce the period of detention for parents seeking asylum. Without resources to pay high bond fees, these parents are often subject to prolonged detention.
  • Embed skilled clinical social workers in legal service organizations to provide trauma-informed mental health services and support for detained parents and families.  Provide support for medical clinicians to document deteriorating health conditions for advocates to use for release requests from detention.
  • Provide in-person interpretation for indigenous language speakers in high-need areas, specialized training for interpreters in trauma-informed practices (in the immigration law context), and general support to indigenous community leaders to collaborate with frontline organizations.

B. For children in ICE or Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody

  • Fund experienced attorneys and paralegals to support children in navigating the asylum process (or apply for other forms of relief), coordinating with their parents or other family members, and pursuing release options.
  • Support training and technical assistance for immigration legal service providers in trauma-informed services for children facing significant mental health challenges stemming from home country experiences, forcible separation from their parents, and other trauma. Provide support for medical clinicians to document deteriorating health conditions for advocates to use for release requests from detention.
  • Scale up programs that train specialized personnel to work with young children and children who have been separated from their parents to deploy Child Advocates across the country.

C. Post-deportation social and legal services support

  • Support organizations that work in parents’ countries of origin (mostly in Central America) to document separations, track rights violations, and locate children who are in federal government custody or released to relatives in the United States.
  • Fund U.S.-based organizations that have existing programs to support children who are repatriated to their countries of origin without their parents.
  • Invest in trauma-informed services to help deported families who were separated and/or detained in the United States and who face violence or persecution in their countries of origin.
  • Support possible legal claims for deported parents and children whose rights were violated while in the United States.

D. Post-release social and legal services support

  • Fund trauma-informed social services and medical services for families who have been reunited and released into U.S. communities, as well as ongoing legal representation in their claims before immigration agencies and courts.

E. Federal impact litigation

  • Support organizations advancing federal litigation to address:
    • Dismantling of the U.S. asylum system, including both the practice of turning back asylum seekers at the border before they have been able to present their claims and limiting asylum protections for those fleeing gender- and gang-based violence as well as LGBTQ-based persecution.
    • Lack of transparency and accountability for conditions of detention and custody at Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities.
    • Use of Operation Streamline against families and asylum seekers.
  • Fund federal litigation focused on protecting existing settlement agreements, such as the Flores Settlement Agreement, which have helped protect children in immigration custody for over two decades.

II. Monitoring and Documentation

  • Support organizations that are engaged in monitoring and documentation in all immigration-related settings—from the border to detention facilities to the courts— to ensure that basic rights and dignity are respected and that immigration enforcement adheres to the rule of law. Many of the policies and practices in question are carried out with impunity and lack of transparency—and monitoring serves as a key tool for directing and informing advocacy, organizing, and litigation..

III. Organizing

  • Fund organizing groups and networks that have strong roots in, ties to, and leadership of immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeker communities, particularly efforts to raise awareness and action and expand community leadership to support humanitarian protections and family integrity.  
  • Support broad-based organizing campaigns seeking to address criminalization of communities of color, particularly intersectional efforts that work to align diverse communities, including immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, around efforts to push back against narratives of criminality.

IV. Policy and Advocacy

  • Support policy and advocacy work to hold the line on existing federal protections for children, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. With the administration’s ongoing efforts to end humanitarian protections under current federal law, advocacy to preserve these protections, particularly provisions for unaccompanied children within the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, is crucial.
  • Bolster regional advocacy to protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Support is needed for U.S. organizations and migrant rights civil society groups in Mexico to jointly:
    • Advocate against Mexico becoming a safe third country for asylum, which would bar anyone who has passed through Mexico and not sought asylum from then seeking asylum in the U.S.
    • File petitions with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to end family separation and reunite families.
    • Protect and provide humanitarian aid to asylum seekers who are being turned away at the U.S. border but remain in a precarious situation in Mexico.
    • Address root causes of forced migration.

V. Narrative and Strategic Communications

  • Support communications-related training and increased communications capacity for frontline organizations that have direct contact with impacted parents and children, as well as longstanding experience with the daily realities of family separation.
  • Ensure that national communications campaigns have the input and participation of these frontline organizations, particularly those in border states.
  • Fund efforts to shift the narrative about immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, particularly those that seek to address the criminalization of other communities of color including mass incarceration, police brutality, and other criminal justice issues.

For funders new to immigrant and those with geographic restrictions, GCIR can provide additional guidance and technical assistance on funding opportunities and facilitate connections to trusted and vetted organizations upon request. To maximize impact, GCIR can also facilitate coordination with other funders to meet immediate needs and to craft a comprehensive strategy to address long-term needs; push back—on the narrative and policy level—against the criminalization of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers; and restore fairness and humanity to our nation’s immigration system. For more information, please contact Daranee Petsod.

If you are not already a member of GCIR, please consider joining. Your dues will help to support our efforts to inform funders of the latest policy developments and devise the most relevant and impactful funding strategies during times like these.