National Immigration Forum

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Detention Reform: A Mixed Review (Part 1)

July 27, 2010 - Posted by Lena Graber



On August 6, 2009, DHS Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton announced plans for sweeping reforms of the immigration detention system. 


On the occasion of the fast-approaching one year anniversary of the announcement of major detention reforms at ICE, the agency and detention advocates have an opportunity to reflect on the progress to date.  Although there have been some accomplishments on detention reform, there is a long way to go before the system can be characterized as civil and humane.  (ICE lists its own perspective on its achievements here.)


One aspect of the promised reforms launched last week: ICE’s Online Detainee Locator System. 


For years, many immigrants taken into ICE detention have been whisked off and effectively disappeared, as family and attorneys struggled to find them in the maze of ICE’s vast detention system.  With the Online Detainee Locator System (ODLS), anyone can search for a detainee by name and country of birth, or Alien Registration Number and country of birth.  The locator will report whether the detainee is currently in ICE custody or not, and provides information about what facility the detainee is in.  If an individual has been released from ICE custody within the last 60 days, the locator provides the telephone number for the ICE field office with jurisdiction over the former detainee. 


The ODLS should result in significant improvements in detention management and transparency for the agency.  Given the huge proportion of detainees that are transferred between facilities, often multiple times, during their detention, advocates hope that the ODLS will greatly reduce the previously widespread problems of detainees functionally vanishing, leaving families desperate to know what has happened to their loved ones, and frustrating attorneys with hours of dead-end phone calls trying to locate their clients.  There are limits to the locator system.  One, for those searching by name, the spelling of the detainee’s name must exactly match ICE’s detention records.  ICE might not have entered the name correctly, especially in cases where a detainee has two last names that may or may not be hyphenated.  Hopefully, searchers will keep guessing alternative spellings if they don’t have a hit on the first try.  Secondly, ICE’s track record on the accuracy of detainee information has not instilled faith in the ability of the agency to keep track of all their detainees.  Third, the ODLS is inaccessible to anyone who lacks computer and internet access; there is no telephonic option.


Unfortunately, more people than ever before have a need to use the ODLS to locate a member of their family or community.  The Obama administration is detaining and deporting immigrants in greater numbers than ever before.  For the hundreds of thousands detained and deported in just the last two years, the ODLS comes too late to have helped their families find them in detention or try to find them a lawyer.  


A major problem with the detention system that has yet to be addressed is the incarceration of mentally disabled detainees.  Many of these individuals are held by ICE in unsafe conditions, while their cases are indefinitely continued because they are unprepared to represent themselves in immigration court.  As part of a large study on people with mental disabilities in the immigration system, Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed over 100 mentally impaired detainees, several of whom had been in detention for more than a year, although 2/3 of HRW’s interviewees did not even know when they had entered ICE detention.  Detainees with mental illness or cognitive disabilities, an estimated 15% of the entire detained population, often end up in segregation, the agency’s term for solitary confinement, as a result of their disability.


ICE recently directed its personnel against detaining individuals with medical or mental illness in some instances.   A June 30, 2010 ICE memo on civil immigration enforcement priorities stated that ICE field office directors should not “expend detention resources on aliens who are known to be suffering from serious physical or mental illness, or who are disabled, elderly, pregnant, or nursing, or demonstrate that they are primary caretakers of children or an infirm person, or whose detention is otherwise not in the public interest.”  It’s too soon to see what results this memo can bring.  We hope that de-prioritizing the confinement of nursing mothers and seriously ill immigrants will be an easily obtainable outcome.  It is long overdue.


Image by Flickr user 710928003.

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