ICE Begins Immigration Detention System Overhaul


Photo by Yiyo.

Today, the Department of Homeland Security announced some much needed changes to the immigration detention system. The ICE detention system, which has grown dramatically over the last several years, currently has 32,000 detention beds available at any given time, which are spread over 350 facilities across the country. ICE owns and operates their own facilities, and also rents bed space from county and city prisons and jails. These prisons and jails house serious criminals, yet immigration detainees—including asylum seekers, legal immigrants, victims of human trafficking, and immigrants with no criminal records—are mixed in with the local prison population.

Assistant Secretary John Morton of ICE announced that, effective immediately, ICE would create an Office of Detention Policy and Planning (ODPP), hire experts in healthcare administration and detention management as well as medical experts, hire detention managers to work in 23 of their most significant facilities, establish an Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), and create advisory groups to provide input and feedback. Finally, Morton announced that the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Texas would no longer be used to detain families. All of these changes are meant to design a new civil detention system that does not rely on the criminal detention system, and to provide better mechanisms to monitor and oversee civil rights, health care, detention conditions, and other aspects of the system.

Today’s announcement is a welcome departure from past detention practices which have led to an ever-expanding detained immigrant population. Over the course of a year, approximately 400,000 immigrants are detained. An Associated Press report found that on January 25, 2009 the immigration detainee population was exactly 32,000. More than 18,000 of these detainees had no criminal conviction, and more than 400 detainees with no criminal record had been incarcerated for at least a year. Nearly 10,000 detainees had been in custody longer than 31 days. According to Detention Watch Network, the average cost of detaining an immigrant is $99 per person/per day.

Numerous reports have harshly criticized immigration detention conditions. Several focused on increasing numbers of preventable deaths in immigration detention. Others have reported that U.S. citizens have been wrongly detained. Most recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called detention conditions “unacceptable,” and the National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU of Southern California, and Holland & Knight law firm published a system-wide report that found that “fundamental violations of basic human rights and notions of dignity” and calling for a halt to any further expansion of the current detention system.

Today’s DHS report follows the introduction of legislation by Senators Menendez, Gillibrand, and Kennedy that would reform the detention system, increase oversight, and protect vulnerable populations.

While improvements to the detention system are necessary and welcomed, it is important to recognize that detaining immigrants is not a long-term solution to a broken immigration system. The U.S. cannot continue to use detention as an answer to any question. The U.S. already has the largest incarcerated population in the world. Locking up large numbers of people for violations of civil immigration laws is certainly no substitute for a functional legal immigration system, the advent of which would go a long way in preventing further human rights and detention violations.

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  1. That’s a baby step in the right direction, but you are right when you say that, “Locking up large numbers of people for violations of civil immigration laws is certainly no substitute for a functional legal immigration system . . . ” Our love affair with locking people up is out of control. The following is part of a recent statement I sent in to DHS’ national dialogue:

    “Our country was founded by immigrants. One of our most cherished symbols is the Statue of Liberty. Our Declaration of Independence states that ‘all men are created equal’ – it does not state that all ‘citizens’ are created equal. It further states that all men are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Our Pledge of Allegiance says, ‘With Liberty and Justice for all.’ It does not say for all ‘citizens.’

    We are a great nation because of our immigrants, not despite them. If character is destiny, and I believe that it is, we can not prosper as long as we continue to treat a large segment of our population as sub-human, refuse them the most basic of human rights and force them and their citizen families and friends to live each day in torment and terror. This is not Russia. This is not China. We do not do such things here. If we are to thrive, we must restore our sense of compassion, our sense of brotherhood and our sense of humanity. What do we gain if we loose our own self-respect . . . if we no longer hold fast to our belief in Liberty and Freedom?”

    I get the feeling I’m communicating with a boulder over at DHS – I doubt anything that I’ve sent them will have any effect. Still, with so much at stake, one has to keep trying. The America I’m experiencing now is not the America I was raised in. We are too quick to take away and individual’s liberty and freedom these days. That is a dangerous trend. Even Obama seems to treat it rather casually – and he should know better.

  2. In my experience the quality and professionalism that you may find in immigration detention facilities throughout the United States varies greatly. I have the most experience dealing with the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, N.Y., and since it opened I have not heard a single complaint from any of my clients who are being housed there with regards to the quality or safety of the facility.

    That being said, the detention facility in Batavia may be the exception, and not the rule. It is good news that this issue is finally being addressed, and we can only hope that systemic changes are implemented for the better.

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