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More Promised Change for Immigration Detention

January 27, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

On January 25, John Morton, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), gave a speech at an event hosted by the Migration Policy Institute.

The bulk of his remarks were devoted to reform of the immigration detention system.  Morton reiterated that detention reform is a personal priority for him, and that ICE will engage in a sustained effort to transform the immigration detention system, an effort that will extend beyond his tenure.  This effort was first announced in August 2009, and re-announced in October 2009.  These announcements included fact sheets and media events laying out many of the reforms that Morton repeated this week.  Given the enormous scale of this announced reform, and the lengthy timeline required, we will be monitoring and periodically reporting about progress here.

He noted that ICE currently detains as many as 32,000 people a day in a vast network of more than 300 mostly penal facilities that are for the most part county, state, federal, and private prisons that ICE contracts with.

That is the crux of the problem. 

Some of the individuals ICE detains have been convicted of crimes, and the penal system is designed to incarcerate those in the criminal justice system.  However, the vast majority of those ICE has detained are being held for violations of immigration laws.  They are people who came here to work and have done so without authorization.  If they can't show they have an avenue to stay here legally, they are being detained only until they can be removed—not because they have done anything more serious than work without permission.

What ICE needs, then, is to design a system that is appropriate to hold such people for a short period of time until their immigration cases are adjudicated and they are removed (or are found to be eligible for release).

Morton's vision is to have a smaller network of facilities designed to hold suspected immigration violators, with appropriate medical care and transparent standards that are fully implemented.  These facilities will be managed by federal personnel.  That's the long-range plan.  It is a long way to there from where ICE is now.

Morton did give a preview of changes to expect in the coming months.

The agency will soon have 50 new employees to monitor detention facilities.  (These same 50 positions were announced in October, but apparently have not yet been filled.)  An overdependence on contractors and a lack of federal employees to monitor them were blamed by Morton for leading to some of the problems that have caused the detention system to come under public and Congressional scrutiny in recent months.  Morton said his long-term goal is to have a federal monitor in each facility used by ICE. 

By this summer, there will be an on-line detainee locator system, so the family members and representatives of detainees can figure out where they are being held.

ICE is developing a classification system so that when someone enters the system there will be an assessment to determine their danger to the community, flight risk, and medical status.  Everyone with a medical issue will have a case manager assigned to them to ensure they receive appropriate medical care.  What Morton didn’t say is whether this classification system will result in a greater identification of those who qualify for release or enrollment in an alternatives to detention program.

The agency is now in discussion with contractors about designing a facility model that will be appropriate for the population ICE detains. 

Morton also noted that ICE is working with groups to revise its detention standards, but implementation of new standards will take time.  The problem with the current standards, he noted, is that they came out of the penal world, and they are not appropriate for the kind of civil system that he wants ICE to move toward.  Reading between the lines, it will be difficult to fully implement the kind of detention standards advocates want as long as immigration violators are being held in prisons.

For many persons who are now routinely detained, ICE is exploring alternatives to detention.  ICE will soon begin a pilot project with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR, the immigration judges).  This initiative was promised by January 2010 in the October detention reform announcement.  He noted that widespread implementation of alternatives to detention (Morton said the agency has 16,000 or 17,000 slots funded) will require more resources for EOIR; the backlog of cases for immigrants in proceedings who are not detained (and thus have a lower priority for the immigration courts) is very long.  The agency is about to submit a report to Congress on alternatives to detention.  (Morton and Secretary Napolitano previously pledged to submit this report to Congress by Fall 2009.)

The Administration's budget, to be released on February 1st, should contain more clues as to what we can expect in the near term regarding the effort to reform the detention system.  All of this will take resources, but the reforms ICE has begun to tackle are long overdue and deserve to be funded.  Given that more than 100 people have died in immigration detention since 2003, these reforms could quite literally be lifesaving.

You can view a video of the program with Assistant Secretary Morton on the Web site of C-Span.

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