A slew of newspaper articles greeted us this morning with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) plans to reform the immigration detention system. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and the Associated Press vied for attention with headlines that held much hope – U.S. to Revise Detention Standards, U.S. to Cut Immigration Detention, and my favorite, Ideas for Immigrant Detention Include Converting Hotels and Building Models.
So what did these ambitious plans contain? At a cost of $1.7 billion a year, the detention system is a vast network of federally run detention centers and about 300 state and county jails that detain 32,000 detainees every night or 370,000 in the year. But all these facts and figures don’t tell the real stories – of detainees transferred far from families and lawyers, of denied phone calls and visits, of 94 deaths – many questionable, and of the physical and verbal abuse that surfaces time and time again.
The reforms have emerged out of a comprehensive review conducted by Dora Schriro, the former ICE Office of Detention Policy and Planning Director, and focus on greater federal oversight, special attention to detainee medical care, and a desire to treat different types of detainees according to the level of ‘risk’ they present. As Secretary Napolitano herself pointed out, “we are taking a non system and making it into a system that will allow enforcement of our immigration laws but will also convince the American people that we are abiding by conditions of safety and security in the most cost effctive way possible.”
So proposals include presenting Congress with a plan for alternatives to detention to in the fall, placing detainees in alternative models of detention including converted hotels, nursing homes and other residential facilities, centralizing management of the detention system, and increasing oversight at facilities. Some will take more time than others, such as the implementation of an online system for families and lawyers to locate detainees or developing newer centers.
For years, advocates have been speaking of the need to distinguish between detainees, and to stop detaining those that are neither a flight risk, nor a danger to the community. We have been calling for better medical care and stopping the for profit detention system without legally enforceable standards. It’s good to see some steps in the right direction.
But there will continue to be problems. For one, what happens to those in detention already. The NYT cites an example of a woman who needs urgent medical care in the Glades County Detention Center and has been struggling to get medical help since the last 5 months. Secondly, while we welcome the promise of alternatives to detention, we hope that this includes community based alternatives, and not all invasive models such as ankle bracelets. And thirdly, we still want to see legally enforceable standards in place, so those that default on their responsibility can be held accountable.
As a NYT editorial says,
“The Obama administration… is pushing back with an effort to be sane and proportionate. If the reforms announced on Tuesday work half as well as promised, the country will be closer to a detention system it does not have to be ashamed of.”