National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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More Questions About Detention Reform

January 11, 2010 - Posted by Brittney Nystrom

Bergen County Jail

The Department of Homeland Security under the Obama Administration marked 2009 with splashy announcements of planned detention reforms intended to revamp the immigration detention system, in chief by designing a civil detention system more appropriate for holding immigration violators who should not be kept in penal institutions.

The announcements were made after a series of stories in the press and numerous reports by NGOs uncovered serious problems with the system of health care for immigrant detainees (problems that included the preventable deaths of several detainees).  Improved health care for detainees and more centralized oversight were central features of the 2009 detention reform announcements.  These announcements were encouraging. 

However, the ability of the administration to carry out the reforms was called into question in a New York Times report on January 10.

“as the administration moves to increase oversight within the agency, [newly obtained] documents show how officials — some still in key positions — used their role as overseers to cover up evidence of mistreatment, deflect scrutiny by the news media or prepare exculpatory public statements after gathering facts that pointed to substandard care or abuse.”

The Times story weakens the Administration’s stance against making legally-binding rules for immigration detention, something that detention reform advocates have long asked for.  The Administration argued that rule-making would be “laborious, time-consuming and less flexible” than its own overhaul.  In other words, in spite of its abysmal record, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wants us to believe that it can police itself.

Advocates at Detention Watch Network expressed dismay and disappointment at the news,

“The Department of Homeland Security’s announced reform efforts are meaningless unless there is a fundamental shift in the way the agency operates, governed by enforceable standards and appropriate oversight of the agency’s authority which has long been unfettered.  It is unrealistic to expect that officials involved in the cover-up of previous abuses can lead a true reform effort.”

Detention reform will not be easy.  The system has grown to an unprecedented size.  Efforts at imposing good management practices are certain to take time.  In the meanwhile, individuals will linger in immigration custody in jails designed for the criminal justice system and families will continue to suffer. 

The task is made much more formidable due to Congressional failure to reform our immigration system.  The vast majority of immigrants who are jailed should be given a work permit, not a jail cell. A path to legalization would significantly reduce the number of individuals present in the United States in violation of the immigration laws, and consequently reduce the need for an immigration detention system. 

As we wait for Congress to do the right thing, DHS must do all that it can to transition to an immigration detention system in which preventable deaths are prevented and enforceable standards are enforced.  The deceptive and evasive conduct of ICE officials described by the New York Times must be replaced by transparency and accountability.  A new year and a new decade offer the opportunity for change.  We hope it’s not too late to teach an old dog a few new tricks.

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