The Department of Homeland Security announced some long awaited changes to immigrant detention policies today. While it’s a step in the right direction it sounds like it’s going to be a Herculean task to centralize the more than 300 contracts operated by disparate Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices across the country. You can check out the new DHS guidelines here.I called Bob Libal, from the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, someone way more knowledgeable than I on immigrant detention matters. I was wondering whether these new initiatives will make a difference in curbing the numerous human rights abuses that have been reported over the years in these facilities. Texas has more immigrant detention facilities than any other state in the nation.Libal’s organization focuses on immigration reform and stopping the expansion of prisons. He said he was happy to see the Obama Administration addressing the numerous problems with immigrant detention facilities. But he was disappointed that the Administration is going to continue to build detention facilities.He brings up a good point. On top of the world’s largest prison population it looks like we are also going to have the world’s largest immigrant detention population at this rate (if we don’t already). Libal said he’d like to see some really poorly run detention facilities like the Willacy County “tent-city” detention facility in South Texas be shut down. For more on the long and sordid history of the Willacy facility check out our Observer coverage. In addition, I should also mention that Grassroots Leadership is helping organize a candlelight vigil to be held in front of the Willacy facility that will take place on October 16th. For more info contact Bob Libal who will be organizing a caravan from Austin.”There’s been all kinds of neglect, abuse and lack of healthcare at this facility,” Libal said. “Also at the Port Isabel facility which is actually federally run there have been hunger strikes for the last several months because of the long periods of time they’ve been detained and lack of access to legal representation.”Of course closing down these county cash cows will be a huge political minefield for the politicians. It’s awful that counties ever embarked on jails as a concept for economic revitalization in the first place. Now they are hooked.According to Libal, there are 4,200 detainees in the Rio Grande Valley alone and only three immigration judges to hear their cases. This means detainees wait months if not years in detention facilities for their day in court.One new DHS initiative I was glad to see was that they will develop a system to place detainees in a facility that matches their risk level be it non violent offender or a detainee with a long criminal rap sheet. According to Libal, currently DHS has no way to determine the security risks of its detainee population. People seeking asylum from persecution in their own countries, for example, are being held in U.S. jails until they get their day in court. One thing that really struck me while helping my co-worker Forrest Wilder report on his latest story in the Observer which details two riots at an immigrant detention facility in West Texas was the differences in criminal backgrounds among the detainee population. There were guys in there who had crossed illegally to look for work serving time at the Pecos facility alongside men with long criminal histories. The only thing this policy does is create more criminals and problems for both Mexico and the United States.The good news is that Homeland Security will now seek alternative forms of detention for low risk immigrants. Instead of jails they are looking at other solutions such as repurposed nursing homes or hotels.
At least the Department of Homeland Security is moving ahead and trying to make positive changes instead of leaving everything to fester as it did under former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his boss “W”.
I was speaking with a law enforcement official from the border today and he remarked how arrogant Chertoff was and that his arrogance reflected in his DHS representatives. This official was glad to report that under the new Secretary Janet Napolitano the agency was finally willing to listen to law enforcement in the field. Hopefully, we’ll see Napolitano’s DHS make good on its promises.