National Immigration Forum

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ICE Detention Reforms: Two Years On

October 06, 2011 - Posted by Guest

This post was written by Forum Policy Fellow Josh Breisblatt.


On August 6, 2009 the Obama administration announced that the immigration detention system needed to be reformed and that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would move away from the penal system that had been created and towards a more civil detention system, appropriate for holding immigrants who are held under an administrative rather than criminal authority. The announcement was followed on October 6th, 2009, with the release of a report assessing the immigration detention system and recommending specific reforms.

One year later, the National Immigration Justice Center (NIJC) and Detention Watch Network (DWN) released a report titled, Year One Report Card: Human Rights and the Obama Administration’s Immigration Detention Reforms, which discussed what detention reforms had been made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and what major improvements were still needed. The report flagged major issues in the areas of mistreatment of detainees by guards, limited access to counsel, and inadequate medical care at detention facilities. It also discussed ICE’s continued over-reliance on the penal system and an “anti-reform” culture at ICE field offices. On a positive note, the report found that ICE has a strong commitment to reform, had been engaging NGOs, and a civil detention system was being designed and developed.

It is now two years later, and it is important to take note of where we are today.

This week, Human Rights First  released a new report titled Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System a Two Year Review, which discusses the progress made towards immigration detention reform over the last two years as well as the continued challenges that ICE has yet to address. The report specifically mentions that the overwhelming majority of detainees are still held in jails or jail-like facilities and that since the reforms were announced, ICE has added over 2,700 detention beds instead of reducing the number. The report also mentions that while some movement has occurred towards a less penal system, it will only affect 14% of ICE’s current detention system. It notes that many detained immigrants still do not have adequate access to counsel. Lastly, this report gives ICE detailed recommendations as to how it can fix many of the issues that still exist.

There have been numerous other reports released over the past couple years that have assessed immigration detention and recommended numerous reforms. A digest of these reports has been compiled by the National Immigration Forum in Summaries of Recent Reports on Immigration Detention, where there are brief summaries of each report and a link to the entire report. The National Immigration Forum has also released its own report titled The Math of Immigration Detention, highlighting just how much it costs the federal government each year to hold individuals in its 33,400 detention beds at over 250 facilities, with ICE currently spending over $5.5 million per day and over $2 billion in fiscal year 2012.

All these reports underscore the fact that while some progress has been made over the last two years, ICE still has a long way to go to implement much needed reforms to its detention system. There are still a great number of open complaints about the current detention system including abuses by guards, conditions of facilities, length of detention time, and issues with lack of counsel. For ICE to meet its own goal of moving away from a penal system of detention to a civil system, these issues need to be addressed.

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