What You Need to Know About the Crisis at the Border

And what you can do to help.

Detention center on a clear day in the desert.
A temporary holding facility for migrants in El Paso, Texas, on May 31. Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

A year ago almost to the week, America became aware of the Trump administration’s policy, announced, then denied, then announced again, of separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border. Last year’s public outrage seems to have given way to numbness. In the months since this was last a pressing news story, our government has continued some of its previous policies and implemented new ones. Its cruelty has found new targets. For many migrants, the situation at the border is now even worse than a year ago, despite multiple lawsuits and the resignations of certain Department of Homeland Security officials. The problems at the border now go far beyond the family separations of last summer. Since the president depends on public confusion and weariness as he implements ever more inhumane policies, we’ve attempted to summarize those policies and offer some ideas for how you can help immigrants access legal aid and other forms of assistance.

1. Migrant children are being held in dangerous mass detention facilities.

When children enter the immigration enforcement system without their parents—or after they are separated from parents (more on that below)—their treatment is governed by the so-called Flores agreement, a 1997 court settlement. Flores requires that children be speedily moved from Department of Homeland Security custody to the care of a purportedly more suitable agency, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Even before the kids are placed in ORR custody, the agreement requires that they be housed in “safe and sanitary” conditions. But as of June 2019, these kids are being held for weeks in Border Patrol stations—the immigration equivalent of police lockups, intended for adults and for very short periods of time. We learned this week that four toddlers being held in a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, had to be hospitalized after a visit from their lawyers uncovered dangerous neglect. The Associated Press reported last week that children have been locked up in Border Patrol facilities for as many as 27 days “without adequate food, water, and sanitation.” And last Tuesday, a Justice Department attorney told a three-judge appellate panel that, notwithstanding the Flores agreement requirements, the government need not provide detained children with soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, or beds. Five children have died in Customs and Border Protection custody since late last year, and the situation is only getting worse. New reports say that children are caring for other children and that flu and lice epidemics are breaking out. Advocates report that Border Patrol stations are so crowded that there is no room for kids to lie down; some are reportedly adding outdoor caged sleeping spaces in their parking lots.


Even once kids are transferred from Border Patrol to ORR custody, the administration is constructing nightmare situations in these mass detention camps. They created a tent city in Tornillo, Texas, that housed thousands of children before it was shut down in the face of vehement criticism. There is no reason to think the next similar effort will be any less inhumane.

2. Families continue to be separated—and the administration is slow-walking reunifications.

Last year’s family separation crisis isn’t solved yet, either, even though the American Civil Liberties Union won a halt to the family separation policy in federal court last year. The government deported many parents away from their kids—and has been slow-walking and evading reunifications ever since.


And, as Michelle Goldberg reported last week, a more limited but still pernicious family separation policy continues to harm families. Goldberg writes that “according to Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Immigrants’ Rights Project, just over 700 families were separated between last June and late May.” As in last month. How is that still happening? Because the injunction that halted the policy last June allowed for children to continue to be separated in cases where their parents have criminal histories or communicable diseases, or if the children are accompanied by non-parent relatives. The injunction also permits family separation when a parent is deemed a danger to the child. But the government is taking advantage of these loopholes; advocates cite an example of a parent separated from his child because of a littering charge.

3. The administration is undermining asylum.

In January, the administration rolled out a new policy to shrink the availability of asylum offered to refugees. The Migrant Protection Protocols program, which is currently being challenged in court, forces asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while they await U.S. immigration court hearings. Under the program, asylum-seekers entering the U.S. are booked into custody and then returned to Mexico with a court date weeks or months in the future. According to the Washington Post, federal officials have returned 12,000 migrants to Mexico so far this year, and thousands more will be sent there shortly. Lawyers worry that these asylum-seekers have little access to legal counsel and are vulnerable as they wait in Mexican border cities, which have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. The shelters in Mexico are facing the same overcrowding, malnourishment, and health care crises U.S. shelters have experienced. But this is going to continue while the court considers its legality, per a ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

4. Trump has threatened immigration raids.

Over the course of a single day this weekend, Donald Trump threatened and then walked back a plan to round up undocumented families that have received deportation orders in 10 U.S. cities. (The cities, CNN reported, were Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco, and the intent was to detain people from up to 2,000 people.) This followed Trump’s claim that ICE would soon deport “millions” of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.


There has been a major effort by advocacy organizations to push out “know your rights” materials and to encourage political pushback like protesting outside of ICE offices and making congressional calls. Nationally, United We Dream, the American Immigration Council, and the National Immigration Law Center will be leading those efforts, though local immigration advocacy organizations are often the best source for actions taking place at the community level. When and if the administration carries out these raids, there will be a massive effort to get families the lawyers they need to ensure they receive fair adjudication. That effort will require resources, and the national organizations coordinating this effort are a good place to start for anyone looking to help fund legal counsel.


Last year, after the initial news reports about family separations, we provided some suggestions for how people might be able to help. We’ve now updated our list of reputable organizations working to provide support to those affected. If you think this is a humanitarian crisis, you should also call your local, state, and/or national representatives.

KIND—Kids in Need of Defense—has been leading advocacy efforts for kids in immigration detention.
• The Women’s Refugee Commission is leading national efforts against family separation and child detention to preserve access to asylum, increase use of alternatives to detention, and improve detention conditions.
• The Catholic Legal Immigration Network plays a crucial role coordinating legal services in response to administration-created crises.
• The ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project is litigating these and other policies at the border.
RAICES is the largest immigration nonprofit in Texas offering free and low-cost legal services to immigrant children and families.
Al Otro Lado serves indigent deportees, migrants, and refugees in Los Angeles and Tijuana, Mexico.
The Florence Project provides legal and social services to detained immigrants in Arizona.
Lawyers for Good Government suggests that you can contribute to the Project Corazon Travel Fund to send more lawyers (particularly Spanish-speaking immigration lawyers) to the detention centers and refugee camps. You can also pledge your frequent flier miles to help get more lawyers to the border and volunteer as a lawyer or translator.
Justice in Motion has created a network of human rights lawyers and nongovernmental organizations across Mexico and Central America to find parents deported without their children and help families reunite in their countries of origin.
Immigrant Families Together supports bonds, living expenses, and medical and legal needs of migrant families.
Innovation Law Lab builds tools for immigration-related crisis response, aiming to improve representation and due process.
• ActBlue has a one-click button to support many of these organizations at once.
Lights for Liberty is doing local event coordination and is organizing nationwide protests and vigils being planned for July 12.
United We Dream, the American Immigration Council, and the National Immigration Law Center are organizing to help immigrants in the event of raids.
Human Rights First is a national organization with roots in Houston that needs help from lawyers.
• The National Immigrant Justice Center represents and advocates for detained adults and children facing removal, supports efforts at the border, and represents parents in the interior who have been separated from their families as a result of aggressive enforcement.*


Finally, the administration has ramped up “ordinary” immigration enforcement against individuals and families all over the United States, many of whom have lived here for years and even decades. Many have valid defenses against deportation that they are unable to assert because they lack the resources to pay immigration counsel. In our home states of Michigan and Virginia, two organizations that meet a fraction of this need are the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and the Legal Aid Justice Center. Your state has an organization too. Google “indigent immigration defense” and your state’s name, and you’ll find it.

Update, June 25, 2019: This article has been updated with more organizations that are helping families at the border.