CHICAGO

It’s been just a few weeks since the nationwide uproar over the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, yet it feels like the issue is already slipping from people’s radar.

That’s partly because the initial media coverage and subsequent protest rallies and outrage—spurred by images of immigrant children sleeping in cages and audio of them crying for their parents—were soon followed by President Trump issuing an executive order to keep families together.

The “Temporary Detention Policy for Families Entering this Country Illegally” reads, in part, “The Secretary of Homeland Security ... shall, to the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, maintain custody of alien families during the pendency of any criminal improper entry or immigration proceedings involving their members.”

That looks all right on its face. In practice, however, it could usher in more problems for the vulnerable families it purports to protect.

Trump’s executive order leaves in place the existing “zero tolerance” policy that separated family members who arrived at the border in the first place, according to Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), a Washington-based nonprofit that has been providing legal representation for immigrant children for more than 10 years. It also raises the possibility that, in the name of keeping children and parents together, families will be held in detention for an indefinite amount of time.

This would violate what is known as the Flores agreement, a 1997 consent decree that requires children in detention to be released within 20 days, and it potentially worsens conditions for whole families.

“People need to understand that there’s a deeper agenda here,” said Wendy Young, the president of KIND. “If you parse the executive order, you see that it doesn’t stop parents from being prosecuted for seeking asylum at a port of entry, leaving the door open to, effectively, punishing people for seeking refuge from human rights abuses.”

Young told me that Trump’s simultaneous push to fast-track asylum cases is a terrible idea. Instead of being able to take a year or so to investigate and gather evidence on whether a migrant is eligible to take refuge in the U.S., putting cases at the “front of the line” and requiring them to be closed within 14 days makes a sham of what is usually a complex legal process.

“A lot of this rushing the process is about closing the door,” Young said. “Holding families hostage in prison-like settings is an attempt to force them to leave. It doesn’t recognize that these families are fleeing some of the worst violence in the world, and all they are asking for is an opportunity for a fair hearing.”

“End catch and release” is the rallying cry of the Trump administration, and it has resulted in a campaign to detain and deport. It’s based on the supposition that immigrants who are allowed to leave detention and return for check-ins and proceedings become dust in the wind.

Not true.

As of May 2017, 2.3 million immigrants who were under some sort of supervision by the Department of Homeland Security because of pending cases (2 million of them had no criminal record) regularly reported to their deportation officers. People didn’t start getting scared to go in for their check-ins until the Trump administration started targeting them for quick deportations, according to news reports.

Viable alternatives to mass detention that are more effective and cheaper than holding families in detention already exist. One Obama-era pilot program provided tracking, support and legal services at a fraction of the cost of family detention, and it resulted in 80 to 99 percent of immigrants showing up for their meetings and hearings. But the Trump administration canceled it.

It’s clear that this is no time to forget about the families in detention.

“It’s disturbing that we really have not gotten any clear idea of what they’re going to do to unify families, and I’m worried they’re trying to figure out another workaround to keep people detained,” Young said.

It’s time to take action. Volunteer or donate money to organizations like KIND and others helping immigrants. Call your elected officials to demand that our country fix the U.S. policies toward Latin America that have led to asylum seeking.

Just do something—the internationally recognized humanitarian crisis at our border won’t get better without you.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Reach her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com, or follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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