National Immigration Forum

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The Anniversary of Detention Reform: A Mixed Review, Part II

August 05, 2010 - Posted by Lena Graber



On August 6, 2009—one year ago this week—DHS Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton announced plans for sweeping reforms of the immigration detention system.  In the past year, there have been positive achievements.  For example, as we outlined in Part I of our series looking at ICE’s ongoing detention reforms, ICE has launched an Online Detainee Locator System.


At the opposite end of the reform spectrum, eight individuals have died in ICE detention in 2010.  Most recently, on July 17, Jose Nelson Reyes Zelaya died while in ICE detention at Orleans Parish Prison, of apparent suicide.


To fairly gauge the progress made requires that we step back in time to August 6, 2009.  On that date Assistant Secretary Morton and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano pledged “major reforms to immigration detention system.”  ICE also pledged to evaluate its detention system “in a methodical way.”  Given the sprawling, controversial, and exponentially growing detention system, such a deliberate design and reform process is wise.   Yet, some shortcomings of the current detention system cry out for equally deliberate haste.  In retrospect, the past year has delivered some victories on detention reform.  (ICE lists its own perspective on its accomplishments here.)   At the same time, there has been frustration at the delay while hundreds of thousands of individuals each year continue to be detained in penal and frequently inappropriate conditions. 


The scale of immigration detention remains titanic.  Upwards of 30,000 immigration detainees are behind bars today, spread across roughly 270 jails and jail-like facilities around the country.  We have not seen significant growth in the use of alternative to detention programs or much receptiveness from ICE in releasing of non-dangerous detainees while their cases are pending.  Furthermore, immigrants have been rounded up by the Obama administration in greater numbers than ever before.  In fact, more immigrants were deported in 2009 then at any time in the past, including under the Bush Administration.    


Despite the enormity of the immigration detention system and its multitude of defects, ICE has made good on some of its promises.  ICE succeeded in ending family detention at the T. Don Hutto facility near Austin, Texas, transforming it into a women-only detention facility where day-to-day conditions have reportedly improved significantly.  However, the reported sexual assaults at Hutto of detainees by a contract guard marred the progress and are a cause for concern across the detention system.  As announced last August, ICE deployed detention managers to monitor many of its largest facilities, including Hutto.  Despite this commendable effort to restore much-needed federal oversight to a largely contracted-out federal function, this increased ICE oversight was insufficient to prevent the sexual abuse of multiple women at Hutto.


ICE also closed the much-criticized Varick Federal Detention Facility in New York.  This was a welcome decision, although a mixed success for detainees who ended up transferred to jails further from family and counsel.  Access to justice and legal services must remain a top priority for ICE in the reform process, a priority which is not met by building improved facilities in excessively remote areas.  An enormous new detention facility opens today in Farmville, VA (approximately 170 miles South of Washington, DC), that may eventually hold as many as 1,000 detainees.  While the facility is lower-security and less austere than many existing immigration detention centers, it is still unquestionably a jail, surrounded by high fences, sleeping hundreds of detainees in barracks-style pods, and requiring detainees to get permission to move from one room to the next.  If the Farmville facility is intended to be a major hub for the East Coast, its lack of access to public transport and legal services is deeply concerning.  This facility falls short of the system imagined by ICE in last year’s announcement; a system “wholly designed for and based on ICE’s civil detention authorities.” 


ICE’s detention reforms could get a nudge forward by a long-anticipated memo from Assistant Secretary Morton on enforcement priorities that directs ICE officers not to expend detention resources on pregnant and nursing mothers, those suffering from serious illnesses, primary caretakers of family members, or those whose detention is not in the public interest.  Another ICE memo on the detention of arriving asylum seekers, while their case is pending has lent welcome oversight and transparency to a formerly opaque process.   


Last August, ICE also committed to creating “advisory groups” made up of local and national organizations with a stake in immigration detention.  This commendable initiative has been dutifully pursued by ICE over the past year.  Transparency and accountability does not always come naturally to law enforcement agencies and ICE deserves praise for increasing both outreach and meaningful opportunity for input to members of civil society.


Instead of dramatically shaking up a deeply complex and problematic detention system, ICE has approached detention reform methodically.  At the same time, tens of thousands of individuals remain locked up by ICE in jails around the country each and every day.  For those behind bars right now, and for those apprehended tomorrow, many of ICE’s pledged 2009 detention reforms will remain an unfulfilled promise.  We encourage the Department of Homeland Security to stay on course.  For those currently in immigration custody, for their loved ones, and for our nation, last year’s pledge to “overhaul the immigration detention system” remains as compelling and urgent a cause today as it was last year.


Image by Flickr user 710928003.

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