DHS announces immigration detention reforms

By Katherine McIntire Peters

October 6, 2009

Homeland Security Department officials said on Tuesday they would enact far-reaching reforms for how Immigration and Customs Enforcement detains immigrants. The new system will prioritize the removal of criminal aliens and those slated for deportation from the country and seek alternatives to incarceration for others when appropriate, said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The reforms were announced in response to the recently-completed review of the detention system by Dora Schriro, the former director of ICE's Office of Detention Policy and Planning. Schriro left the bureau in September to become the New York City commissioner of corrections.

In addition, ICE will review and centralize management of the more than 300 contracts it has negotiated with other public and private facilities to house detainees, said John Morton, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The bureau also will increase from 23 to more than 50 the number of federal employees working on-site to oversee facilities where more than 80 percent of detainees are housed, Morton said.

This fall, ICE will submit to Congress a nationwide implementation plan for creating alternatives to detention where appropriate, such as using monitoring devices on aliens who don't pose a threat to others.

Many of the reforms will require ICE to develop much better record-keeping on its detainee population. For example, the bureau has pledged to create an online search system for family members and attorneys that would enable them to locate immigrants in the detention system -- a task easier said than done, Napolitano acknowledged.

A report last month by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, found serious problems with the database and case-tracking system ICE uses to manage detainees. The organization analyzed the sufficiency of ICE information systems in light of the bureau's legal mandates and management imperatives.

ICE might need more and different information on those in its custody than it currently collects, particularly information that can inform and guide its legal and operational decisions, according to the report.

"The detention data highlight the need for ICE information systems that can meet the substantial challenges of a sprawling detention system -- comprised of hundreds of facilities, large and small, public and private, federal and local -- that holds a highly diverse population, including men and women, criminal and noncriminal detainees, the medically fragile and others," the report said.

Napolitano and Morton said they were immediately pursuing plans to develop and implement a risk assessment and custody classification system that would help officials determine the appropriate facilities for detainees, with the idea that converted hotels and other residential facilities may be used to house noncriminal, nonviolent detainees.

ICE also will develop a medical classification system to support detainees with special physical or mental health needs.

On any given day, ICE has 32,000 immigrants in custody, with an annual detention population of about 308,000, according to Morton. "If we are going to have credible immigration enforcement we need to have a detention system that is robust, well-run, and designed to handle the different populations we detain -- violent offenders, women and refugees," he said.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the changes, but said more reforms are necessary. "The new DHS detention initiatives fail to examine the pipeline that channels hundreds of thousands of people into ICE detention in the first place. A large segment of people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement have not been convicted of any crime," said Joanne Lin, ACLU's legislative counsel, in a statement.

"In order to truly reform and improve its immigration detention system, DHS must reform the ICE enforcement programs that are herding masses of people into ICE detention every day," she said.

By Katherine McIntire Peters

October 6, 2009