Immigration enforcement agency to overhaul detention system

The immigration detention system will undergo drastic changes to address concerns about living conditions and lax federal oversight, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced late last week.

"We are improving detention center management to prioritize health, safety and uniformity among our facilities while ensuring security, efficiency and fiscal responsibility," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement.

Watchdog and civil liberties groups have criticized ICE, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, for failing to ensure facilities that hold suspected illegal immigrants meet standards for food and medical care and follow proper protocols for reporting alleged mistreatment of detainees.

To lead reforms, ICE is creating an Office of Detention Policy and Planning headed by Special Adviser Dora Schriro. The office will develop a new detention system with more federally operated facilities designed specifically for ICE. Currently, the agency relies heavily on using extra beds at locally or privately managed penal facilities, making oversight challenging.

In another step toward greater direct oversight, ODPP will recruit 23 detention managers to ensure appropriate conditions in centers housing 40 percent of detainees. The office also will hire experts in health care administration, detention management and medical care to guide policy changes. Officials will evaluate progress using benchmark measures in seven categories, including religious services, family visitation, recreational and law library programs; health care; and attention to special populations such as families and the elderly. ICE employees will be held accountable for adhering to oversight, discipline and grievance review policies.

"Implementing these reforms will improve medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence and ICE's critical oversight of the immigration detention system," Napolitano said.

Other important initiatives include the formation of two advisory groups to provide feedback on general policies and detainee health care, and the discontinued use of family detention at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Texas. The center will be for female detainees only, and the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania will house families.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded ICE's initial steps but said there is more work to be done. "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," said Joanne Lin, legislative counsel with ACLU.

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