Family Separation Crisis at the Border: Emergency Delegation Recap

On August 6 – 8, 2018, Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP) organized an emergency delegation of  some of the country’s most important philanthropies to the California/Mexico border to address the Administration’s inhumane practice of separating children from their families.  [To date, there are 416 children who have not been returned to their families, despite the court order instructing the Trump Administration to do so.] Through this delegation national foundations, local funders, academic leaders, individual philanthropists, and leaders along the U.S./Mexico border were exposed to the complexities of this growing humanitarian crisis, which continues today. The delegation gave participants an in-depth understanding of the human implications of the family separation policies. This understanding has spurred the development of new strategies —  in rapid response-mode — from delegation participants. These new strategies seek to address the stress and trauma on children and their families that comes from such violent and sudden separations. Participants left the delegation determined to provide the conditions and opportunities that will allow impacted families to move on from this tragedy and live life with dignity, peace, and with a sense of safety. Survey results addressed the profound insight gained by participants as a result of the delegation, and how they are each now using their influence to help others understand the stark reality on the ground, while calling on the U.S. to end the federal government’s cold-hearted practice of separating families at the border. Thank you to each of you who dared to join us to learn about the family separation crisis at the border, one of the most profound humanitarian challenges of our time. We are thankful for the co-sponsors who leveraged resources and knowledge for this three-day gathering. This brief recap of the activities includes a synthesis of themes raised by participants.

Briefings and Site Visits:

Through visits to detention centers, shelters, courtrooms and in-person conversations with impacted families and community leaders, participants explored the history and complexities of the San Diego border community, including the patterns of migration, policies of enforcement, detention and deportation practices, the vibrant immigrant and asylum-seeker communities that have sprung up, and the dynamic organizations that support them each day. The delegation included visits to the following locations:
  • Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego
  • San Diego based Operation Streamline court proceeding
  • San Diego based federal immigration court proceeding
  • Southwest Key Children’s Shelter in San Diego
  • Two Tijuana, Mexico based migrant shelters:
    • Casa del Migrante
    • Instituto Madre Asunta
  • The National Institute of Migration: Repatriation Program Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico
  • COLEF (College of the Northern Border) to meet with  Haitian community organizers and researchers on border issues in Tijuana, Mexico
  • Friendship Park border wall (two groups of delegation participants visited Tijuana, MX and San Diego, CA sides simultaneously).

San Diego, California

Participants heard details from local experts and immigrant-serving organizations on the impact of the Administration’s zero tolerance policy, including the rapid overcriminalization and prosecution of those crossing the border, including those that are asylum seekers. Through the site visits, participants learned about the long-term impact of an increasingly militarized border. They also witnessed first-hand the criminalization of asylum seekers and immigrants such as:
  • A young Nepalese women sitting through an immigration court proceeding without an attorney, with translation provided only via a speakerphone, and with no real hope for any support from a system lacking appropriate staff and cultural competence. All this asylum seeker needed to be granted asylum in the U.S. was an address—in any state, in any city. She clearly didn’t understand that requirement, and the court did nothing to support her understanding. The young woman left the proceeding in tears and in fear. The public defender from the San Diego Immigrant Justice Project explained that the young woman would most likely would be deported, simply because she lacked basic information and access to legal advocacy.
  • Operation Streamline is a newly implemented court procedure that critics are calling “assembly-line justice” or the “steamroller.” Many of the federal defenders are representing multiple clients with little time to speak to clients and explain the process. The defendants come from a Border Patrol station without having been afforded so much as a shower or food to eat.
Minimally, this process is supposed to be transparent and public, yet our delegation participants were continually denied entrance to view the Operation Streamline court proceedings, and were even given false information that the court “was not in session” the day they visited. Our cohort persisted and was able to view the questionable legal proceedings. All defendants were charged with misdemeanors, whether or not they understood the proceedings or the ramifications of being sentenced (once sentenced they cannot apply for asylum or other forms of legal entrance into the U.S. because of the judgement against them). Operation Streamline is an example of how the legal system is being utilized to both criminalize immigrants and making their cases invisible to the general public. Our delegation witnessed other examples of disconcerting legal, financial, and emotional tactics being utilized to keep immigrants in vulnerable situations and without access to support services, detailed below. Tactics to ensure that immigrants and detainees are unable to access resources or advocacy support:
  • Someone picked up overnight can appear in court within hours, and before they meet with counsel.
  • Because the immigrant never makes it to a detention center, they will not get access to legal aid or legal services.
  • A criminal conviction via Operation Streamline makes you ineligible for a “credible fear” (asylum) hearing.
  • Moving those that are detained around to different states serves to keep them far away from their support systems and from resources that can help get them out of detention (e.g.: No access to bail/bond).
Tactics being used to keep families separated and hide the number of children separated:
  • Parents are forced to sign documents without understanding content.
  • Parents are deported without children.
  • Individuals are transferred to detention centers out of state.
  • Telephone calls from the detention centers are exceptionally expensive. It costs over $1 per minute to make calls from inside the detention center. People in the detention center work for about $1 per day.
  • Parents are being charged to be reunited with their children. Parents or sponsors deemed “eligible” for reunification are assessed fees (approximately $1800 to fly a child plus a chaperone when a child has been moved to another state).
  • To have a child reunified with a sponsor, that sponsor, and anyone living in the home, must be fingerprinted (possibly exposing any other undocumented family members).
  • The facility for children we visited referred to all children that they serve as “unaccompanied minors” — even those that have been separated from their families as a result of detention. Using this legal term changes the way children separated from families are counted.
Tactics being used to deter people from seeking asylum:
  • The process for “credible fear” hearings is changing quickly; an increasing number of individuals are not passing the credible fear interview because of changes in the law, despite having valid asylum claims.
  • Bond is being denied for asylum seekers that are “arriving aliens” – those that have presented themselves as the U.S. border seeking protection.
  • Under a recent Supreme Court decision (Jennings), arriving aliens are no longer eligible to request bond before an Immigration Judge every 6 months.
  • There is no mechanism for securing release. Individuals that are apprehended within the U.S. are entitled to a bond hearing after six months.
  • Those that do present themselves at the U.S. Border requesting asylum are often told, “the U.S. isn’t giving any more asylum; we’re full” – which is contrary to the law.
  • If the person seeks asylum, the time in detention is unknown. If they have children, time away from their children is unknown.

Tijuana, Mexico

On the Tijuana side of the border, delegation participants witnessed women who were separated from their children and living in a shelter as they try to reunite with their child. The nuns at the Instituto Madre Asunta shelter explained to participants the grueling process mothers seeking to reunite with their child must face, oftentimes alone: Once parents are separated, and the mother is sent back to Tijuana, the children are kept in the U.S. facility. Before the parent can be reunited, the immigrant parent must meet the same requirements the U.S. sets forth for reuniting children with citizen parents that have been charged with abuse or neglect (a process where parental rights have been interrupted):
  • Parent must get psychological counseling
  • Parent must go through “parenting” classes
  • Parent must get blood work to prove no substance abuse
  • Parent must have a job/source of income
  • Parent must be able to provide fully furnished apartment/residence
It can take a parent anywhere from 8 months to 2 years to get their child back. They need legal support to be successful. In the meantime, that child now goes into the foster care system. Parents can lose all parental rights while they are going through this process. In Tijuana, delegation participants also met with members of the Haitian refugee community in Tijuana. These leaders taught participants about the different communities — from all over the world — that traveled to the U.S./Mexico border seeking asylum only to be denied at the hearing and are now trapped at the border. These asylum seekers traveled from their home countries and through Mexico to reach a legal Port of Entry to request asylum. Once that asylum was denied, they were returned to their Port of Entry (Mexico) with no resources, and, oftentimes, not speaking the language. They must now figure out a way to survive without resources, systems of support, or language skills. Throughout the various panel presentations, community leaders talked about their efforts to absorb and support families awaiting loved ones in detention or awaiting to be reunited at the border, and how the invasion of federal agents into local communities is causing community residents, particularly children, to feel traumatized in every aspect of their lives. An immigrant mother on a panel explained how she was stopped while driving and arrested without being able to pick her kids up at school or to explain to her family where she was. This tactic of arresting immigrants while driving their kids to school is becoming more commonplace and exposes children (often citizen-status children) to witnessing their parents’ arrest. “The need for quality legal services and how what is happening now fits into a larger historical context of exploitation and racism.” “As a delegation, we may not have changed the verdict of the individuals, but we changed the tone that was set by the judges to the detainees at the detention center.” “The adaption of the organizations working at the border was surprising and gave me hope. ” “We need to heal as a community.”

Post-Visit Debrief and Strategy Session

After learning about the profound impact of the family separation crisis, participants heard from local organizations and leaders who shared their long-term strategies to help families overcome the trauma and violence experienced — at their place of origin, during their journey to the U.S., and at the hands of federal agencies upon arrival to the U.S. With no end in sight, participants discussed the approaches necessary to build resilient communities, the resources the community would need to get through the trauma, and how to grow and advance a new system of effectively welcoming and integrating new arrivals.

Taking Action

Through the delegation experience, insightful conversations and subsequent debrief, five points of action emerged.  In general, the themes related to next actions included a focus on narrative change, funding, advocacy, systems change, leadership development, and staying focused on community centered approaches. HIP’s goal is to continue facilitated conversations around these key areas of work:
  1. Changing the narrative
  2. Building a new infrastructure to operate change
  3. Activating the legal and educational community
  4. Supporting healthy individuals and communities through trauma-informed care
  5. Building long-term, sustainable movements

Changing the Narrative

A united voice is needed to lift up and defend families and immigrant communities, while correcting our fragmented and reactionary narrative. HIP calls for investments in organized communications efforts to shape a new, impactful narrative that compels people to act.

Building a New Infrastructure to Operate Change

Ideas on how to diversify channels of funding to fund long-term sustainable systems and lessen reliance on philanthropy are crucial. We need creative models for funding and organizing of local funders, including Giving Circles and other philanthropy networks. Ultimately, while it was agreed that movements build from the ground up, funding leadership and infrastructure development are essential to success.

Activating the Legal and Educational Community

We must activate legal, educational, and social service community-based support to create less siloed and more coordinated movements, inclusive of youth and other populations. This includes:
  • Embedding a public defenders model or, at a minimum, more Legal Orientation Program models at detention centers, and providing general legal aid for all immigrants;
  • Creating a platform that allows detainees to be matched with legal services;
  • Supporting response to basic needs such as, housing, cell phones, and social security;
  • Educating and equipping community-based organizations on the ground with links to legal aid services for quick and trusted referral systems.

Supporting Healthy Individuals and Communities Through Trauma-Informed Care

Supporting increased trauma-informed care and other mental health care to create healthy individuals and communities, particularly in the communities that will absorb new arrivals. Working with the existing system of health care and mental health care providers to ensure that they are employing a ”trauma-informed” approach.

Ensuring that Funders are Providing Appropriate Resources

As well as culturally competent support for community organizations that will absorb and relocate families who have been traumatized. For example, it is projected that the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area will receive up to 40% of the detainees from the McAllen, Texas centers. How do we ensure that organizations like CARECEN, Casa de Maryland and others have the staff and resources needed to serve such a large influx of new clients?

Building Long-Term, Sustainable Movements

In order to work smarter and toward long-term change, we must continue to analyze all available data and engage the appropriate partners to build a pro-immigrant movement with a strong foundation. We must better understand all of the actors (good and bad), including impacted migrants, and organize the flow of resources across the border to help sustain a movement of change. A comprehensive look at the laws and their application in the court system, and on other key data points will help us to better understand and respond to the continuing crisis. Other goals to consider as we move forward in this work include:
  • Better understand the migration patterns and the context under which people are fleeing their countries of origin and attempting the ever-dangerous border crossing
  • Change approach/response from reactive to proactive and agenda setting
  • Generate long-term flexible spending
  • Build more infrastructure to support community leadership
  • Use an integrated approach; collaborate and coordinate over issue areas
  • Invest in research and data to inform communities on what works, then train and build champions
  • Build on existing movements and waves, plugging into existing networks

Making Meaning: Where do we go from here?

Stay engaged with HIP and our network of members and allies to continue to shine a spotlight on this issue and partner with us as we take action. The call to action is strong, yet many are still struggling with how to provide the most effective, impactful support. HIP will continue to serve as the conscience of philanthropy and to push philanthropic partners to act in a way that is most helpful to those directly impacted and to those who provide services to immigrants. Our objective is to develop a strong network of local actors, across borders, that can be the first level of support to immigrants and asylum seekers. This network will begin with funders and local NGOs but extend well into a nationally mobilized group of support. We will use this network to help inform and mobilize when needed. One new item that requires immediate attention and mobilization is the Administration’s current proposal to change regulations that would lead to the indefinite detention of thousands of families apprehended at the southern U.S. border by stripping legal protections for children to be treated with “dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors.” The new regulation would supersede the Flores Settlement (1997) that protects immigrant families in government custody by stipulating that children and families must be released from custody as quickly as possible– in most cases, typically within 20 days. However, the newly proposed regulation would allow the Administration to detain children throughout the course of their immigration proceedings, up to several years. This is another example of inhumane treatment and an outright attack on immigrant communities. HIP will be providing more information on how to respond to this threat, but, in the meantime, we recommend that every organization concerned about this proposal register their concern with the Federal Government immediately via the Federal Register’s website. These dangerous proposals will be open to public comment for the next 60 days before they can be finalized.

HIP invites you to join us in other important activities:


HIP has launched a $2 million fund for immediate and long term response to the family separation crisis, particularly supporting organizations offering legal aid and mental health and other social services for families impacted by the recent policies. To date we have $1 million already committed to the fund. We are reaching out to national and community foundations for partnerships to leverage the fund and its impact. Contact to join this effort.


During this HIP facilitated call, participants will have an additional opportunity to hear from delegation participants, and:
  • Reflect on what they witnessed and learned from their time in the delegation or insights gleaned after they returned to to their organizations;
  • Share strategies and or initiatives that they have been implemented in their organizations post-delegation; and, discuss potential opportunities for continued partnership on this issue.
HIP will also share more information about the Family Unity Fund. The call will be on Friday, September 21, 2018 at 1:00pm EST (please register HERE).


HIP has partnered with Casey Family Programs to provide insight into immigrant children and the foster care system, and how to leverage investments to improve the lives of vulnerable children, including those separated from families at the border. The Casey Family First Webinar will be on Wednesday, September 26, 2016 at 1:00pm EST (please register HERE).

Follow-On Activities from Delegation Participants

Many of our delegation participants have started to implement changes or build new initiatives at their own organizations to address the needs they witnessed first-hand. We will be sharing more information on these activities via monthly national conference calls (mentioned above) that HIP will host with members and partners. Please join us for monthly updates — register for the first call here. In the interim, we are pleased to share information about one such participant effort coordinated by the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program, Abigail Golden-Vazquez. Abigail’s blog post, titled The Cost of Criminalizing Immigrants and Militarizing the Border is Greater Than We Think, addresses what is at stake, beyond the financial issues. Abigail discusses forsaking our values and ideals about justice, and larger effects resulting from the long history of criminalizing migrants and militarizing borders, beyond the latest atrocity of child separation. An accompanying Aspen Institute Facebook Live event featured other delegation participants Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation; Abel Nunez, Executive Director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN); along with Abigail Golden-Vazquez. As a philanthropic community, we must stay focused on the socio-economic implications that this trauma — and the historically poor treatment of new arrivals to the U.S. — will have on generations of immigrants, on both sides of the border. Follow @BeHIPgive to learn more about our day-to-day work in this area, and other areas impacting Latinos across the globe.