Immigration adviser faces learning curve

Dora Schriro was recently appointed to the new position of special adviser to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detention and removal. Immigration detention is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the U.S., and the issue will inevitably come up in the push for immigration reform from President Obama. After moving to Washington from Arizona, where she headed the Department of Corrections under Gov. Napolitano for six years, Schriro spoke to's Alina Selyukh about adapting to government at the federal level and working to improve the national detention system.

NJ: After being in Washington for about two months, how do you feel about the city?

Schriro: It's great to be here for cherry blossoms.... I've always been kind of a news junkie, so it's pretty exciting to be in a place where so much news comes from. People here are great. I'm very close to the airport because I'm on the road a lot.

NJ: Where do you travel?

Schriro: In these first 90, 120 days, I am actively involved in preliminary assessment for the secretary, so I've been hitting a number of facilities... speaking with as much of the detained population as I can, talking with staff.

NJ: So what will come out of these travels?

Schriro: It's a first assessment. That's why I'm calling it preliminary; it's not a one-time kind of a thing. It is to get a really good feel for the many strengths that are here at ICE.

NJ: When will we start seeing new policies from ICE?

Schriro: There have been some small but I think symbolically substantive changes already. For example, the whole of how we detain aliens has attracted considerable public and congressional attention -- as it should. Included in that is the health care that the population receives, and included in that is deaths in detention. Early in my tenure, at the beginning of March, there was an appropriation hearing... about deaths in detention. Within several weeks of that hearing, there was a death, apparently of natural causes -- we are still pending, of course, the autopsy to make that confirmation. That was an opportunity to make an immediate change... to make immediate notification to Congress, also to release a news advisory and to put that news advisory on our Web site. So it's faster and clearer transparency.

NJ: What sort of shifts in policy should we expect to see soon?

Schriro: There's been quite a bit of discussion about the decision-making when aliens are identified and are in the process of determination of amenability for deportation and going through the removal process. You know, [one] of the first decisions is where to place that individual pending all those processes: Shall they be detained and under what circumstances, or can they be released to the community? There's quite a bit of interest, including myself, in revisiting the processes by which we make those decisions.

NJ: You've been working with Janet Napolitano since her tenure in Arizona. As governor, she was often described as very hard-headed, tough. Do you agree with that?

Schriro: She's just all about the facts and accountability. She's very focused on outcomes. She wants results.... But she's also about having fun. She really loves the work she does, and she's exceptionally good-humored about pushing us along to be our best selves.

NJ: Walking down the hallways here in the ICE building, I didn't particularly sense the fun vibe.

Schriro: Well, there's a terrific amount of work to do.... People get here pretty darn early and we stay pretty late. There's a lot of collaboration, a lot of information-sharing and certainly a learning curve for those of us who are new to the federal side of government.

NJ: What is the main challenge for you in adapting to the federal side?

Schriro: Other than learning all the acronyms? (Laughs). I got a little crib-sheet that I keep going on those. You know, the strategies are very much the same. But, for example, when I was newly appointed as director [of the Department of Corrections] in Arizona and being new to the Southwest, it was getting out in the field and meeting as many people as I could and touring all the facilities and meeting with legislators, the other interest groups, the constituents that had particularized interest in corrections. Here, the world is a little bigger.... If there's an adjustment, it's the scope and the scale of things.

Check out the blog Lost in Transition, a joint effort of Government Executive and National Journal.

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