Beleaguered Immigration Jails Still Waiting for Reform

It’s been a year since the Obama Administration pledged to overhaul the U.S.’ burgeoning immigration detention system. In 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement became the largest jailer in the nation, housing at least 378,000 immigrants a year in more than 300 private or federall run facilities across the country. This year, we’re set to hit the 400,000 mark.

Many of the nation’s largest immigrant prisons, such as Willacy County’s “tent city, ” are here in Texas.

Back in October 2009, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announced that ICE would make good on reforms outlined by Dora Schriro, the director of ICE’s Detention Policy and Planning at the time. A year earlier, Schriro had been tapped by Napolitano to do a top to bottom assessment of the beleaguered detention system. This came after numerous media and NGO reports citing guard abuse, a lack of medical and mental health care, the use of solitary confinement as punishment or for medical isolation, and limited access to family or legal counsel.

Schriro produced her report then left suddenly to take a job in New York and “be closer to her family.”

I always took her sudden departure as an ominous affirmation that the system must be a Titanic wreck. For some months we heard nothing more about Schriro’s report. Then suddenly an announcement from Napolitano last year that ICE would start acting on Schriro’s recommendations, which included centralizing prison contracts in one place, using alternatives to detention and providing better health services among other things.

“These new initiatives will improve accountability and safety in our detention facilities as we continue to engage in smart and effective enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws,” announced Secretary Napolitano in an October 6, 2009, press release.

It’s one year later, and human rights advocates say they are still waiting. Today, a coalition of more than 50 human rights organizations issued a “year one report card,” which gave the Obama Administration a failing grade on its reform efforts to date. Despite Napolitano’s promises to reform the massive system, it has largely been unfulfilled, they say.

“One year after the administration announced its intention to improve the immigrant detention system, it remains broken,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director or Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center. “And while ICE leadership has expressed a commitment to improving conditions at these facilities, lack of transparency and accountability plague the system while individuals in detention suffer.”

Two big hurdles are what the advocates call a “pervasive anti-reform culture at local ICE field offices” and the agency’s over reliance on “penal incarceration practices.”

Last May, ICE leadership sent a memo to private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America, which runs immigrant detention facilities, outlining 28 changes to make the detention facilities less like prisons and more humane. Some of the changes included allowing for free movement of low-risk detainees, expanding visitor hours and allowing for unmonitored phone lines. The memo also suggested some softer touches such as adding hanging plants and offering fresh vegetables.

ICE union leaders were incensed. Tre Rebstock, president for Local 3332, the ICE union in Houston, likened the changes to creating “an all-inclusive resort” for immigration detainees, according to the Houston Chronicle. Rebstock said the changes would jeopardize the safety of agents, guards and cost taxpayers more money.

At the heart of the debate is whether immigration violators should be treated as hardened criminals. People working in the prison business are trained to view people in their custody as a potential security threat. Yet, immigration violations are a civil matter, not a criminal matter.  Many people wait for months in detention while immigration judges decide their cases. People being held in these facilities include a wide-ranging population from legal residents who may have committed a misdemeanor to undocumented migrants that have committed murders. ICE is proposing the more humane changes for non-criminal immigrants not the other population of detainees who have committed murders, kidnappings etc and are an obvious security risk. Nevertheless, the changes have roiled ICE.

This is a debate that will continue to fester until Congress tackles comprehensive immigration reform, which could help relieve some of the overcrowding. With the nationwide adoption of ICE enforcement programs like 287(g), Secure Communities, and the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) that direct local law enforcement agencies to funnel more and more immigrants into the detention system, the system will only become more untenable.

National human rights groups such as Detention Watch Network, the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights are protesting today in various cities, including Austin, to highlight the lack of reforms “Until ICE limits detention to only those rare cases where it has been shown necessary to ensure public safety, the human rights crisis in the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system will persist,” said Emily Tucker, policy and advocacy director at Detention Watch Network.

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

Published at 4:22 pm CST
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