Today at the Migration Policy Institute, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton, outlined his vision for immigration detention reforms which he hopes will mark his time and tenure at ICE. In particular, Morton emphasized the need for detention facilities that are designed specifically for immigration detention purposes as opposed to converted prisons. His vision is to redesign facilities to look like civil detention centers rather than criminal jails. While detention advocates welcome the intention of Morton’s new goals, the question remains as to whether ICE is capable of implementing these much needed changes after years of less than favorable reports about the immigration detention system and a flurry of articles by Nina Bernstein in the New York Times detailing some of the problems in the system.

Morton proudly cited the creation of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, whose role is to design and plan a civil detention system tailored to address ICE’s needs. Morton also discussed new protocols for investigating the deaths of those held in detention, which provides for more transparency in investigations as well as Congressional notification. He also explained that ICE is in the process of hiring 50 people to monitor and oversee daily detention practices in the largest facilities.

Morton’s list of upcoming reforms is a bit longer:

  • An effort to centralize immigration detention facilities in specific hubs where access to legal counsel, families, and medical treatment would be plentiful. In addition, these facilities would be managed at the top by federal employees subject to clear, transparent, and fully implemented detention standards (though Morton told the crowd at MPI that they must be “patient” on revised detention standards, as ICE is trying to find something that works for both advocates and contractors, and is cost-effective).
  • Medical treatment will be helped along by a planned classification system that all detainees would go through upon intake, as well as “regional case managers” who will be responsible for serous medical issues in detention.
  • Reducing the number of detention facilities. ICE detains 32,000 people per day and around 380,000 per year. Morton stressed the importance of keeping the system compact and organized (ICE has already eliminated 50 facilities under Morton’s watch).
  • Aiding in this effort will be an online detainee locator system, which is expected to be launched in June. Morton also mentioned reducing dependence on contractors, but was quick to say that they would never completely eliminate contractors, whom he explained were more cost-effective and did a better job at certain tasks than the federal government.
  • Finally, Morton talked about ICE’s preference to detain only criminal immigrants. He detailed ICE’s desire for smart, cost-effective alternatives to detention in order to ensure court appearances for non-criminal immigrants who pose a flight risk. Morton revealed that the Executive Office for Immigration Review is conducting a pilot program for alternatives to detention, and that after testing is complete there could be 16,000-17,000 slots available for immigrants to be placed in these programs.

Previous reports have outlined the need for detention reforms. Morton’s plans are long overdue, welcome and promising, but the department still has a ways to go before advocates will be satisfied that our nation’s immigrants caught up in detention are receiving fair and humane treatment.

Photo By: Lonnie Tague