National Immigration Forum

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Welcoming Detention Reform, Waiting for Immigration Reform

October 07, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

VIDEO:  Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO)’s floor speech on the ICE Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations Report released yesterday. 

Earlier this year, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of the immigration detention system overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  In August, ICE announced that it was undertaking reforms of its detention system, including the creation of new offices within DHS tasked with detention policy and planning.  The review was conducted by Dr. Dora Schriro, who was briefly ICE’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning Director.  The release of the report on October 6th was accompanied by an announcement of a set of initiatives to implement some of the recommendations. 


ICE’s immigration detention system has come under much public scrutiny in recent months, after several immigrants perished while awaiting deportation.  Those deaths were made public in press accounts including an investigative report by the Washington Post that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  (Recent governmental and non-governmental watchdog reports pertaining to the immigration detention system are summarized in this document.)  Recognizing the mess that immigration detention has become, members of Congress introduced several pieces of legislation this year that would require minimum standards of care for those detained by DHS.


Many of the recommendations contained in Dr. Schriro’s review are basic.  As the New York Times editorialized on October 6th,


Tuesday’s announcement includes statements of “core principles” so fundamental that you have to wonder what they are replacing.


The Times editorial continues, citing two examples.


• “ICE will detain aliens in settings commensurate with the risk of flight and danger they present.” That means the government has finally come to understand that detainees are not all violent criminals. They include young mothers and their children, asylum seekers, upright members of communities who, but for a lapsed visa or bureaucratic snafu, would not be in trouble with the law. Those who can make no case for staying here should be deported. But it’s gratifying to hear Ms. Napolitano and Mr. Morton acknowledge that nonviolent noncriminals — particularly those seeking refuge — should not be warehoused behind bars. They have promised to increase alternatives to detention, and we expect them to do that — even if it means a vast effort nationwide.


• “ICE will provide sound medical care.” This fundamental government responsibility has been shamefully neglected in centers around the country. The reform plan refers vaguely to a new “medical classification system” for detainees that should improve treatment and reduce unnecessary and disruptive medical transfers. ICE should make clear what that means and how that will help those who become sick or injured only after they are admitted and classified.


In sum, the key recommendations made in the report, and the initiatives announced on October 6th by Secretary Napolitano and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton had to do with:


§         Increasing accountability: All detention contracts will be managed, monitored, and enforced out of ICE headquarters in Washington.  ICE will more than double the number of its staff dedicated to on-site oversight of the detention facilities where the majority of detainees are held.  ICE will also try to implement an on-line locator service so that families and attorneys can locate detainees.


§         Appropriate treatment of immigrants in the custody of ICE depending on risk: Immigrants will be detained in facilities appropriate to the risk they present.  Non-criminal, non-violent immigrant detainees will not be jailed as if they represent a risk to society.  The use of alternatives to detention will be expanded. ICE is developing a plan to implement a nationwide alternatives-to-detention program.


§         Increasing attention to medical care: ICE will “devise and implement a medical classification system that will improve awareness of an individual detainee's medical and mental health conditions from the time the individual first enters detention.”


Some of these changes will take time to implement.  A Fact Sheet accompanying the report and announcement set out a timeline for some of the reforms.


It was also announced that, while a national search is conducted to replace Dr. Schriro as Director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, Phyllis Coven will serve as Acting Director.  Ms. Coven is coming to ICE from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 


While the continued attention to the detention system by this administration is encouraging, the underlying problem is yet to be addressed.  If our immigration system was not so dysfunctional and if it allowed for legal immigration in a real way, there would be no need to detain the majority of current detainees in the first place.  As long as our immigration laws are broken, the task of managing immigration detainees will be much more complicated and occur on a much greater scale than is necessary.  As the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum stated today, “Ultimately, a humane detention system will come only when Congress acts to reform our immigration laws.”

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