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U.S. announces change in policy for immigrant detention
August 06, 2009

U.S. announces change in policy for immigrant detention
Batavia Detention Facility
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Assistant Secretary John Morton announced Thursday that ICE is undertaking a major overhaul of the agency's immigration detention system. 

"This change marks an important step in our ongoing efforts to enforce immigration laws smartly and effectively," said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. "We are improving detention center management to prioritize health, safety and uniformity among our facilities while ensuring security, efficiency and fiscal responsibility."

"In the past five years, ICE has experienced considerable growth in immigration detention. This growth has presented significant challenges to a system that was not fundamentally designed to address ICE's specific detention needs," said Morton. "Implementing these reforms will improve medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence and ICE's critical oversight of the immigration detention system. ICE remains committed to enforcing our nation's immigration and customs laws. We also reaffirm our commitment to ensuring the security, safety and well-being of individuals in our custody."

The government's announcement, however, failed to address a number of critical holes in the current system, including a lack of enforceable basic conditions standards, due process to ensure people are not unnecessarily detained, especially for prolonged periods of time, and alternatives to detention.

"The single most important thing we can do with regard to immigrant detention is to reduce the need for its use for millions of non-criminals, families, and workers in the first place," said Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum. "By having a functioning legal immigration system so that people come with visas and within the law and by establishing a system for processing the millions of immigrants living here illegally into legal status, we can put our immigration system back on a legal footing and move away from the fantasy that we can simply enforce our way out of our current situation."

As the first of several steps ICE is taking to implement detention reform, the agency is creating an Office of Detention Policy and Planning (ODPP). The role of this office is to design and plan a civil detention system tailored to addresses ICE's needs. The ODPP will evaluate the entire detention system in a methodical way, with seven areas of focus, each with benchmarks for progress:

While ICE continues to undertake the ODPP review, other immediate actions announced include: Discontinued use of family detention at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Texas. In place of housing families, we will propose that the Texas facility will be used solely as a female detention center. Presently, Hutto is used to detain families and low custody female detainees. Detained families will now be housed at Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania.

Hutto, a former state prison that was the focus of American Civil Liberties Union lawsuits filed in 2007 on behalf of 26 immigrant children which charged that the children were being illegally imprisoned in inhumane conditions while their parents awaited immigration decisions.

Ending family detention at Hutto is extremely welcome and long overdue, and the American Civil Liberties Union looks forward to working with DHS to revamp the broken immigration detention system," said Joanne Lin, Legislative Counsel with the ACLU. "However, in order to effectuate meaningful reform of the immigration detention system, DHS must issue legally binding and enforceable detention standards, which DHS has refused to do for years, and must provide basic due process to ensure that individuals – including U.S. citizens – are not being inappropriately locked up, often for prolonged periods of time." 

"We hope and expect Secretary Napolitano and the President’s team to continue working with Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform quickly so that we gain more control over immigration. In the meantime, we are very supportive of the changes announced to the detention system and hope this signals more oversight and accountability throughout DHS and our immigration enforcement system," said Noorani.

2009 Immigration Detention Reforms as announced on the DHS website

Today, Assistant Secretary John Morton announced substantial steps, effective immediately, to overhaul the immigration detention system. These reforms will address the vast majority of complaints about our immigration detention, while allowing ICE to maintain a significant, robust detention capacity to carry out serious immigration enforcement.

The Current System

The present immigration detention system is sprawling and needs more direct federal oversight and management. While ICE has over 32,000 detention beds at any given time, the beds are spread out over as many as 350 different facilities largely designed for penal, not civil, detention. ICE employees do not run most of these. The facilities are either jails operated by county authorities or detention centers operated by private contractors.

The Future

With these reforms, ICE says they will move away from the present decentralized, jail-oriented approach to a system wholly designed for and based on ICE’s civil detention authorities. The system will no longer rely primarily on excess capacity in penal institutions. In the next three to five years, ICE will design facilities located and operated for immigration detention purposes. These same reforms will bring improved medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence, and ICE oversight.

Specific Steps