Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a slate of reforms in the way Immigration and Customs Enforcement deals with the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrations it detains every year.
Napolitano and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton made the announcement on Oct. 6, outlining the need to tailor the agency’s policies to its unique needs. Among those policy changes is a system of separating detainees who are accused of serious crimes from asylum seekers and those who are accused only of entering the country illegally; creating alternatives to detention, which Napolitano said would reduce costs for the agency; providing adequate healthcare for detainees; and creating a more effective system of oversight for ICE detention facilities.
On any given day, the ICE detention system has about 32,000 detainees, Napolitano said, and the agency handles nearly 380,000 detainees each year. ICE knows those numbers are likely to rise as the agency continues immigration enforcement, she said.
Napolitano said the goal of the reforms is take a scattered system of detention facilities and policies and make them more efficient.
“Our goal … is to take what was a non-system and make it a system, make it a system that enables us to pursue the enforcement of our immigration laws, but give the American people confidence that we are doing it meeting the basic standards of safety, the conditions of safety and security that we must have, and also to ensure that we do it in the most cost effective way possible,” she said.
Napolitano outlined five primary changes to ICE’s detention system, one of which is classifying and separating detainees based on those who have violent or other criminal histories from other detainees. The agency will detain people in facilities that are “commensurate with the risks they present,” and ICE will use facilities such as converted hotels and other residential centers, Napolitano said. The agency plans to centralize oversight of the 300-plus contracts it has with various detention facilities across the country.
“Our detention system has some who have committed crimes, others whose crime under federal law is a misdemeanor, others who have … not committed a crime at all. And they are being held pending their removal from our country,” Napolitano said during a conference call with reporters. “Not all of them need to be held in prison-like circumstances … which not only may be unnecessary, but expensive.”
The reforms call for the creation of an office within ICE to plan and design a system tailored to the agency’s needs, and another to oversee and inspect detention facilities, as well as investigate complaints. Morton said both offices are already operational. The agency will double the number of personnel dedicated to oversight of detention facilities, he said.
Napolitano said the agency also plans to look at alternatives to detaining some illegal immigrants. ICE will draw up criteria for determining which illegal aliens are suitable candidates for alternatives to detention, and submit a plan to Congress in the fall outlining the plan, she said. Those criteria, Napolitano said, will reduce the number of detainees in the system, while ensuring that those who are offered an alternative to detention do not escape into the general population, where they would difficult to find again.
“It is easy to assume that alternatives to detention automatically is cheaper than detention itself. That is not always the case. So really understanding how (alternatives to detention) works, when it does make sense and when it does not, is part of our plan, because our overall responsibility to the American people is to make sure that this is an efficient and effective detention system,” Napolitano said.
Access to legal services is another factor being considered. Morton said a central aspect of the changes is to ensure that detention facilities are located in urban areas that have a “fair amount” of pro bono legal services available for detainees. The agency also plans to create a computer system that will allow family members and attorneys to more easily locate detainees within the ICE system, Napolitano said.
Some changes, such as housing detainees in facilities that are suited to meet their medical needs so ICE can reduce transportation costs, are largely designed, or at least touted, as cost saving measures. Changes to one facility in Hutto, Texas – which has primarily housed families but will now be dedicated to women – will save the agency about $900,000 a month, Napolitano said.
But Napolitano and Morton said cost was not the primary factor in any of the changes. “It’s part of that, but take it from me, that’s not what this is ultimately about. … It’s about getting it right,” Morton said.
Morton said the reform plan was primarily the brainchild of Dora Schriro, who served as director of the Arizona Department of Corrections during Napolitano’s governorship. After Napolitano became Homeland Security secretary, Schriro came to the agency as a special advisor to review ICE detention practices and recommend reforms. Schriro has since left the agency to head up the corrections system in New York City.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge her work and thank her work. It was tremendous, and her experience and efforts have helped shape the various announcements that we will make here today,” Morton said.
Napolitano said she has been meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss greater coordination between their agencies regarding immigration issues. And the secretary, who is widely expected to take a lead role in President Obama’s push for immigration reform in 2010, suggested bigger changes are coming.
“We have been working with and meeting with the Department of Justice on those types of issues, just as we continue to meet with those on the Hill and elsewhere about the need to update the entire immigration system, because it is now out of date with respect of what needs to happen in a modern-day world. And that will continue as well,” Napolitano said.
The changes announced by Napolitano and Morton were unrelated to recent changes to 287 (g) program, which trains local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law. Several hours after Napolitano and Morton’s conference call, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio held a press conference in which he blasted Homeland Security and ICE for recent changes to the program.