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Immigrant bond fund helped free migrants from ICE detention this year

A group of immigrants that were requesting asylum are returned to Mexico at El Chaparral port of entry in Tijuana.

NELVIN C. CEPEDA/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/TNS

By HAFSA FATHIMA | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: November 30, 2019

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — An immigrant bond fund has helped free 34 people from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Centers this year.

The Borderlands Get Free fund was conceived by The San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, a project of Alliance San Diego about two years ago, driven by the idea of providing financial aid to families who had relatives in ICE custody.

"It can mean families reunite, breadwinners come home, or people can focus on healing from past harm," said Monika Langarica, an attorney and committee member of the Borderlands Get Free Fund.

The consortium started accepting applications for bond funding last year, said Lilian Serrano, chair of SDIRC. Around $90,000 was granted in funding, she estimated.

"We created a committee that started looking into detention," she said. "And how we could help decrease the amount of people currently detained. We don't want anyone to sit in prison just because they're an immigrant."

California has the second-largest number of detainees in the country, according to data from Freedom for Immigration. The SDIRC's committee's service covers the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where more than 800 people are currently detained, as well as Imperial Counties.

Some immigrants currently in ICE custody can be freed if they are found eligible for release and are able to pay an immigrant bail bond. This money acts as a surety to the government, an insurance that a migrant will continue to appear for all their court proceedings.

For immigrants arriving and then detained at the border, the amount set is known as parole, which the SDIRC also helps provide funding for, Langarica said.

Eligibility is usually determined by two factors: if a migrant poses a "flight-risk" – disappear and not attend their court dates – and if they are not a danger to their community. Amounts are usually determined by an immigrant judge or ICE officials – starting at $1,500, with no maximum limits.

Parole for detained immigrants at the border is granted by ICE using the same factors. Detainees can usually request for the amount to be lowered, but some families struggle with even the minimum rate, said Serrano.

"Even if we look at working families who currently don't even have one income coming in right, that number is impossible," she said.

Applicants were accepted online last October, with committees deciding who the money would benefit. One of its criteria was proving "long ties" with the community and region, Serrano explained.

"They look at who is at a higher risk of being detained," Serrano said of the process. "We do give priority for people who have to be in special housing or solitary housing, for example, if they're LGBTQ."

For Jose, it was money that ended 13 months in detention. The 46-year-old, who asked that his full name not be used, was one of the 34 freed this year.

"I learned that people who didn't know me were going to pay a bond so I could be free," he said. Langarica, Jose's former attorney, said he'd initially learned about the fund through his own research.

"Inside, the same fear and terror that causes people to seek asylum can manifest again," said Jose, who shared a room with seven other people. "I felt good trying to seek asylum, but that spirit changed when I was locked up in a cage for so long."

The committee does its best to make funding available to everyone in need, Serrano said, coordinating their efforts with affected families.

"We try to work with them," she said. "If they (the immigrant) have a $6,000 bond, the family can come up with a $1,000 bond and then we pay the other $5,000. We do try to connect them with other funding as well."

The bond fund can only provide up to $5,000 in aid, but a recent fundraiser held by the organization last month hoped to raise more awareness. Its nature as a revolving fund ensures that any future cases also receive help, Serrano added.

"Our fiscal sponsor pays the money directly to ICE," she said. "When they close the case, whatever the decision is, the money gets returned."

Jose now lives in Southern California, and was able to reconnect with family members.

"I believe my life is like a lot of other people who try and find stability on a day-by-day basis," he said. "I'm very grateful to the United States for allowing me to live a calm life."

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