National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

Blog & Updates

Statement for the Record on Immigration Detention Reform

March 28, 2012 - Posted by Brittney Nystrom

See our related press release here.

Read an April 2 letter to White House Domestic Policy Counsel Director Cecilia Muñoz about covering immigrant detention facilities under the Prison Rape Elimination Act here.

House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement
“Holiday on ICE: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s New Immigration Detention Standards”


The National Immigration Forum works to uphold America’s tradition as a nation of immigrants. The Forum advocates and builds support for public policies that reunite families, recognize the importance of immigration to our economy and our communities, protect refugees, encourage newcomers to become new Americans and promote equal protection under the law.

ICE Detention- Positive First Steps Taken Toward Needed Reform:

The National Immigration Forum welcomes this hearing on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration detention system and the administration’s new detention standards. In light of the growing costs of immigration detention, the sprawling size of the detention system, and the numerous concerns and critiques about immigration detention over the years, this conversation has been needed for some time.

Not only are the 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) not 'hospitality guidelines,' they're no more than a good first step toward addressing the safety and human rights deficiencies that leave immigrant detainees vulnerable to abuse and medical emergencies—and that's if they're actually implemented, which remains to be seen.

We begin with why reform, including improved detention standards, is necessary. First, the costs of immigration detention are enormous, and often unnecessary. Given the high expense and humanitarian concerns surrounding the use of immigration detention, more humane and cost-effective alternatives should be pursued. Many immigrants who are currently detained can be effectively monitored with alternative methods, such as
telephonic and in-person reporting, curfews, and home visits. Alternatives can range in cost from as low as 30 cents to 14 dollars a day per individual. By comparison, it costs ICE an average of $122 per day of detention for each detainee. Alternative methods also have proven effective; in Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, alternatives to detention had a compliance rate of 93.8 percent. Thus, maximizing the use of alternatives to detention
has the potential to save taxpayers millions of dollars annually as is chronicled in the National Immigration Forum’s paper, The Math of Immigration Detention.

Second, the conditions of detention for those in ICE custody are not appropriate, consistent, or sufficient. We applaud ICE for issuing improved detention standards. Despite being characterized as “hospitality guidelines” by the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the 2011 PBNDS provide common sense guidance on the treatment of those in immigration detention. Many of these standards have been drafted in response to unacceptable conditions of detention or mistreatment of detainees. The National Immigration Forum has chronicled a parade of critical assessments and scathing reports that have been published by non-governmental organizations, advocates, and academics about immigration detention over the last 4 years in a Detention Digest.

Medical care for detainees illustrates one aspect of immigration detention that has received notoriety. Under pressure to address incidents of substandard and even fatal medical care at facilities ICE uses to hold immigrants—more than 120 immigrants have died in ICE custody since 2003—ICE’s latest detention standards require that medical service requests be received and triaged by medical personnel within 24 hours.

In addition to improved medical standards, the 2011 detention standards also institute a sexual assault response team to help victims of sexual abuse access proper medical, crisis intervention and mental health services. These teams come not a moment too soon. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), since 2007, more than 180 sexual abuse complaints were reported in immigration detention centers. But this number may barely scratch the surface; experts believe that the real incidence of sexual abuse is much greater because of unreported cases. Immigrants in detention are extremely vulnerable to abuse, due to language barriers and fear that if they report the abuse, they will be deported in retaliation.

These revised detention standards are an important step for ICE to make good on its promise of bringing accountability and safety to our nation’s sprawling immigration detention system.

Despite the PBNDS 2011, Concerns About Detention Facilities Remain:

As positive as the 2011 PBNDS may be, major concerns remain. First, these standards are not yet in effect in any detention facilities. As long as detention facilities fail to implement these upgraded standards, there will be no improvement in the detention conditions that approximately 33,000 immigration detainees experience each day. Director Morton stated recently that when negotiating future contracts with detention facilities it will be non-negotiable that these new standards be included as part of any deal. However, this remains to be seen and does not affect the scores of facilities currently holding ICE detainees. In fact, many facilities currently in use by ICE have not even implemented the 2008 detention standards and are operating under the 2000 standards. Violations of the standards often occur without consequences.

Besides the fact that these new and improved standards have not been implemented, there are areas where even if they were implemented they would still fall short. For example, in 2003 a unanimous Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). This was the first civil law that focused on eliminating sexual abuse in detention. However, the Department of Justice proposed rule in January of 2011 would exempt DHS, and therefore all immigration detention, from PREA requirements. While the 2011 PBNDS, as they relate to sexual abuse, are an improvement from earlier versions, they still fail to meet standards set by PREA in areas such as provisions for confidential reporting and protection from retaliation, requirements for proper criminal investigations of assaults and specialized post-assault training for investigators and medical staff, and the appropriate use of detainee screening, background checks for employees and applicants, and use of incident reviews, outside audits, and unannounced rounds to ensure proper policy implementation.

Furthermore, the latest PBNDS don’t address the fundamental contradiction of immigration detention centers operating like, if not identical to, correctional institutions. Our immigration detention system is supposed to serve a limited purpose — to ensure that individuals comply with deportation proceedings, separate from the punitive function of the criminal justice system. In 2009, the Obama Administration promised to make immigration detention “a truly civil” system, with appropriate conditions for asylum seekers and immigrant detainees, many of whom pose no threat
to public safety and are not a flight risk. Yet despite the administration’s good intentions, there is often no tangible difference between immigration detention and criminal custody.

In sum, we applaud DHS for introducing the 2011 PBNDS. However, concerns remain around their implementation, their ability to prevent sexual abuse, and the financial burden of our enormous immigration detention system. Specifically, the PBNDS must be implemented at immigration detention facilities nationwide and not just posted on the ICE website. The administration also needs to keep its promise of a creating a “truly
civil system,” by expanding the use of alternatives to detention that are equally effective but save taxpayers millions. These steps would go a long way toward meaningful reform of our chronically troubled immigration detention system.

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