High number of deportations amidst a record number of crossings.

A Democratic president promising positive change to immigration policy that never comes.

Limited capacity at every nonprofit legal service provider.

You would be forgiven for guessing whether we were talking about 2012 or 2022. Over the 10 years since the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC) was founded, the immigration space has roiled under the relentless, demeaning attacks by politicians and populists eager to exact suffering on a marginalized group of people to push their agenda. However, the community that has grown to respond to the wave of inhumane hate stands as the key change over the past decade. While many of today’s challenges in the immigration field share an uncomfortable amount of similarities with longstanding systemic issues, HILSC believes that the future for the community looks bright.

To mark its tenth birthday, HILSC worked to position its network to tackle the next decade. At the beginning of this year, HILSC finally became an independent 501(c)(3), giving the organization greater latitude to advocate for immigrants and greater flexibility to martial resources on their behalf. Shortly after, HILSC began work on a strategic plan. Why select that as the first major project after becoming independent? Because the power of HILSC always came not merely from the collective labor of its partners but also through the opportunity of coordinated efforts to smartly tackle the challenges at hand. The words of philanthropist W.K. Kellogg, which continues to guide his foundation, encapsulates this sentiment: “…it is only through cooperative planning, intelligent study and group action – activities on the part of the entire community – that lasting results can be achieved.”

This spirit informed our strategic planning as we collected feedback from our network through surveys, one-on-one interviews and group discussions. HILSC wanted to co-create with its partners a guide to fostering a resilient interdisciplinary immigration ecosystem capable of meeting the existing and emerging needs of immigrants in Greater Houston in an agile, adaptive manner.

The planning culminated in a June meeting that brought more than two dozen partners throughout the network, many seeing each other for the first time since before the pandemic. Across the conference room were the four goals that underpinned our new plan, an evolution of the goals that guided HILSC in the past. Over four hours, partners gathered in small groups and discussed the critical elements HILSC and the community should prioritize when it came to each of these goals.

Participants expressed broad enthusiasm and support for the proposed goals and approaches. They encouraged HILSC to take a bold and systemic approach to its work, noting, however, that sequencing of activities would be critical to success. This is a marathon, not a sprint, they reminded us. They also provided valuable input on how HILSC could approach implementing these elements and ways in which HILSC partners could contribute. By the end of the process, the foundational goals of HILSC transformed into revised goals that resonated with lessons learned from past experiences and better suited to today’s challenges.



Though the work in organizing the strategic planning was not easy, especially as the plan put in place requires regular evaluation to ensure the goals are being met, we would not have chosen differently. We as a community have tirelessly worked to uplift and defend immigrants against the unjust excesses of the immigration system, but working tirelessly without plan or direction is not sustainable. As we enter the second decade of existence, HILSC wants to safeguard the existing capacity that serves immigrants and continue growing it as this community has done since 2012.

These plans provide a start to a more dynamic future where HILSC can help the community continue adapting to an ever-changing landscape. Similar to Amnesty International, another organization that faces intractable problems in an increasingly hostile environment, HILSC believes having at all times “strategic goals to guide the movement.” One of the few frameworks designed explicitly for this type of situation is the Theory of Change, a process specifically designed to enact wider social change through informed, strategic decision making, a version of which we will unveil in the coming months. In our future blog posts, we will go more in depth through the steps taken in the strategic planning, including data collection, the philosophy of inclusivity and the decision-making process.

As of July 28, 2023, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Family Expedited Removal Management (FERM) program includes Houston. FERM was originally announced by ICE on May 10, 2023, and started with immigrants heading to the four cities of Baltimore, Newark, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Denver and St. Paul were added in June and Houston and New Orleans in July. Beginning August 11, 2023, Nashville, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Bernardino, and Portland have been added to FERM and Las Vegas, Marlton (NJ), Sacramento, San Antonio, and Los Angeles will be on the list August 18, 2023.[1]

This blog post will address what FERM is and how it is being used below. However, in light of recent litigation, HILSC felt it might be helpful to discuss first whether the FERM program would be continuing. On July 25, 2023, Judge Tigar in the Northern District of California granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs: East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (“EBSC”), Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles, Tahirih Justice Center, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, and American Gateways. The order from Judge Tigar vacated the DHS & DOJ rule known as the “Circumvention of Lawful Pathways” (CLP) rule or the “asylum ban,” and remanded it to the agencies.

Nevertheless, the 9th Circuit has since stayed the lower court’s order vacating the CLP rule pending their decision on the government’s appeal. Regardless of the recent litigation, which continued prior litigation over an “asylum ban” under the Trump administration, the CLP rule solely implemented asylum related regulations under 8 CFR 208.33. The FERM program is considered an “Alternative to Detention” (ATD), which is not part of 8 CFR 208.33.

Although not explicitly mentioned in the INA, ICE began using ATD in 2004, under the “discretion” given to ICE Enforcement and Removal Officers (ERO) in INA 236(a) and 8 CFR 1236.1(c)(8).[2] However, under INA 235(b)(1)(B)(iii)(IV), an individual in expedited removal who expresses a fear of returning to home country is subject to mandatory detention until it is determined that either the fear is credible or the fear is not credible and the person is removed. FERM is explicitly for families in expedited removal and, as discussed below, allows the families to not be detained, which seems to be contrary to the mandatory detention requirement in INA 235.

What is FERM?

Under FERM, family units at the border who express a fear of returning to their home county will be processed by CBP and released if their intended destination is any of the specified cities listed above. For these purposes, family is defined as a noncitizen parent or guardian and their noncitizen child(ren) under age 18.[3] For those familiar with Houston and its large size and sprawl, this may have triggered a question as to what is considered to be “Houston?” A family will be enrolled in FERM if the address of their intended destination is within 75 miles of the ATD site in one of the listed cities.

Once it is determined by CBP (in conjunction with ICE ERO) that the family will be going to a location within FERM’s purview, and that they are from a country with which the U.S. has regularly recurring repatriation flights, the “head of household” will be given a GPS monitoring device (usually an ankle monitor) and instructed to report to ICE in the intended city and to add the Smartlink application to their phone/device.[4] ICE indicates that GPS monitoring devices are not allowed to be given to pregnant people or people with a severe medical condition. Enrollment in the FERM program is also dependent on the capacity of USCIS in the destination city.

Upon arriving at the destination city, the family must go to the ATD office in that location to be further enrolled in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP). While at the ATD office they will get a “Know Your Rights” (KYR) presentation, a list of immigration resources in the area, and instructed on the home curfew they will be expected to comply with.[5] The family will also have an appointment with the USCIS Asylum Office in the location for their credible fear interview (CFI), which was scheduled by CBP prior to releasing the family.

One of the main challenges that has been reported about the FERM program is the timeline under which all of these steps must take place.

On a recent webinar from AI Justice, panelists indicated that the time it could take to get from the border to the CFI in a designated city was frequently more than five days. Taking into account the difficulties of traveling with children and getting them settled into a new location while also looking for childcare and transportation and consulting with a lawyer, most families would have difficulty preparing for the very real possibility of a CFI being scheduled on day 6.

Practitioners that have attempted to work with immigrants in FERM have reported that the intake and screening process are strained due to difficulties getting access to phones, confidential spaces, and childcare in such a short period of time. Not to mention that the lack of time makes working with the client in a trauma-informed manner next to impossible. Other challenges immigrants face in the process can be the distance they have to travel to the asylum office for their CFI, lack of childcare during the interview, and the long duration of the interview—often up to 6.5 hours during which time there is no food for the adults or children.

How do I know if my potential client is in FERM?

As mentioned above, ankle monitors and/or SmartLink phones are a good initial indicator that the family is enrolled in FERM. Although it is not consistent, there are various potential documents the family may have:

With the FERM process starting in Houston July 28, 2023, practitioners in Houston and the other listed cities should be screening carefully to make sure not to miss a FERM family, as their needs and timeline will be significantly different from other clients. With the short timeframe between arrival in Houston to scheduled credible fear interview, the earlier you encounter the family the better. At the end of July, ICE sent an email to current organizations on the EOIR List of Pro Bono Legal Service Providers asking which organizations wanted to be included on information provided to FERM families as potential remote legal service providers. However, ICE has not yet confirmed which organizations are/will be listed, so HILSC would encourage all advocates to keep an eye out for these families.

[1] After the initial announcement of FERM by ICE on May 10, 2023, announcements about expansion cities have been sent to stakeholders via email. The only additional information ICE has released about FERM is “Statement regarding the Family Expedited Removal Management Program.” “US expands curfews for asylum-seeking families to 13 cities as an alternative to detention,” Elliot Spagat, AP News, August 4, 2023.

[2]Immigration: Alternatives to Detention (ATD) Programs,” Audrey Singer, Congressional Research Service, July 8, 2019. “Alternatives to Immigration Detention: An Overview,” American Immigration Council, July 2023.

[3] Information in this section gathered from Americans for Immigrant Justice’s Webinar: “What is the Family Expedited Removal Management (FERM) Process?” on July 25, 2023 and ICE’s FERM Stakeholder meeting on July 28, 2023.

[4] If the head of household does not have a device, one will be given to them.

[5] The ISAP program is run by BI which was acquired by Geo Group and has had many issues, including case managers being assigned up to 300 people at once, which means each immigrant gets very little assistance. Poor tech, opaque rules, exhausted staff: inside the private company surveilling US immigrants , The Guardian, March 7, 2022.

Family separation support services

On November 9, President Trump issued a proclamation that places severe restrictions on individuals seeking asylum through the southern border of the United States.

Trump Administration moves to bar migrants from seeking asylum

Houston’s legal community is gravely concerned about the consequences of the latest efforts to shred asylum law, a critical pathway to legal immigration

Today, President Trump issued a final rule and presidential proclamation that places severe restrictions on individuals seeking asylum through the southern border of the United States. In so doing, the Administration is effectively shutting down asylum as a pathway for legal immigration for many immigrants. Under current U.S. law, anyone newly arriving or who has been in the United States for less than one year can ask for asylum if they have a fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

This marks another executive action attacking refugees and asylum seekers, following the precedent set by the 2017 Muslim Ban and decreasing the number of admitted refugees to a mere 30,000 per year. The Administration is relying on the same authority to bar immigrants from Muslim-majority countries as justification for this new rule.

Andrea Guttin, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative’s Legal Director said:
The President is trying side-step our laws which allow anyone on U.S. soil to seek asylum when they fear they will be threatened, harmed, or killed because of who they are or what they believe. The Administration has tasked itself with dismantling asylum law since it came into power. The President is using the caravan as a scare tactic to justify his long-standing agenda to close our border to the most vulnerable. This new proclamation will lead to mothers, fathers, and children whose lives are in danger being turned away, despite our country’s moral and legal obligation to provide refuge.

American asylum law recognizes not everyone can come to a border crossing point, such as bridge or another “port of entry,” in order to seek asylum. As such, our laws permit anyone in the country to seek asylum – regardless of how they enter. Alarmingly, however, border officers have used threats, lies, and outright denials to keep out asylum seekers who do exactly what the President is asking them to do: ask for refuge at a port of entry. The government’s own Ombudsman investigated and reported earlier this summer that asylum-seekers have been turned back at the arriving port of entry, leading some “who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally.”

Lauren Fisher-Flores, an immigration attorney with the Tahirih Justice Center who is currently in Mexico City providing consultations to adults and children in the caravan, said:
Yesterday, we met a significant number of transgender women, pregnant women, and children traveling without their parents, many of whom appear to be eligible for asylum based on their past persecution. We met people fleeing violence, including a police officer, his wife and two children who were threatened by his own colleagues and the gangs for refusing to join a corruption scheme; a gay man who has suffered years of persecution because of his sexuality; and a transgendered couple who have been shot at and threatened. This group is representative of many migrants seeking asylum in the United States and deserve the protections of our established laws.

In addition to limiting the number of people eligible for asylum, this proclamation paves the way for the prolonged, indefinite detention of asylum seekers. Increased detention further traumatizes those fleeing persecution and makes it more difficult to access legal representation and community support. The only beneficiaries of indefinite detention are private prison companies and the President’s political agenda.

Julie Pasch, Managing Attorney with HILSC’s Deportation Defense Houston, a project that provides legal representation to immigrants in four Houston-area detention centers, said:
It is difficult to win an asylum case because asylum law is extraordinarily complex and it nearly impossible to navigate the immigration court process alone. The Administration is using the fact that many asylum claims end up being ‘non-meritorious’ as justification for this policy change, but in fact, the two biggest factors determining whether an asylum claim is granted by an immigration judge is whether the person is represented and whether they are in immigration detention. Asylum-seekers who are detained and not represented by an attorney win their cases only about four percent of the time.

The Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative stands with asylum-seekers and refugees in opposition to this action by the Trump Administration. We urge Houstonians to speak out against these policies by calling their members of Congress. Individuals, including attorneys, can volunteer with our partner organizations. We also welcome donations supporting legal representation for asylum seekers in the greater Houston region.