Friday, October 9, 2009

Reforming Immigration Detention

On Tuesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano released a report by Dr. Dora Schriro (about whom I've posted here) describing and recommending reform of the United States' immigration detention programs-- just a month after Schriro announced that she would step down as the Department of Homeland Security's Director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning. The result of an intensive eight-month study of the system, the report is transparent, thorough, and sensible, which might seem baselines for government operations, but represent an enormous step forward for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While I would still quarrel with the decision to detain many of the immigrant groups described in the report, its recommendations are a vast improvement on what's come before, and underline the urgent importance of naming Schriro's replacement.
Despite its measured tone, the report is littered with stunning facts and statistics that illustrate the gravity of the flaws of the immigration detention system. For starters, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), responsible for enforcing civil immigration law, operates the largest detention system in the country. In FY 2008, ICE detained nearly380,000 non-citizens, almost 90% of whom came from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. ICE holds 50% of the detained immigrant population in county jails alongside criminal detainees, but does not require these county jails to uphold national detention standards. The detained immigrant population includes non-criminal asylum seekers, 1400 of whom are jailed daily. ICE outsources not only detention but also monitoring and evaluation functions, which were performed primarily by the private sector at a cost of $31 million in FY 2009. One might think that such a delegation of authority would include written policies and procedures or technical manuals specific to detention -- but ICE has failed to create any such written guidance. The existing detention standards are based on criminal incarceration, so are more costly and restrictive than necessary for non-criminal populations. It is not a surprise but still a shame to learn that officials in the Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) are primarily law enforcement personnel who hold limited expertise in design and delivery of detention facilities and alternatives to detention.
The report offers five main recommendations, which again illustrate the fundamental nature of the problems of immigration detention. These may still be challenging to implement in a dysfunctional bureaucracy, especially if the position of Director of DRO is filled by a less capable hand than Schriro. The first recommendation is that detention be consistent with assessed risk, requiring a step rarely taken -- for ICE to ascertain non-citizens' propensity for violence and likelihood of absconding. Second, Schriro's report recommends that DRO assess and respond to detainee's needs, such as medical care, legal materials, visitation, and religious practice, paying particular attention to special populations such as women, families with children, and asylum seekers. Third, the report suggests that DRO implement clear standards of medical care, including thorough initial assessments, monitoring, and ongoing management. Fourth, the report recommends federal oversight of key detention operations, including tracking performance and outcomes, placing federal officials on-site, and ensuring accessible and effective grievance and disciplinary processes. Finally, Schriro suggests that DRO implement the simplest of reporting systems, including a daily count of all detainees and a list of detention facilities. Just these basic changes could represent an enormous improvement in the lives of thousands of immigrants every year, and may well be more cost-effective than the current system (though we await the report's recommended comprehensive analysis of detention costs, including evaluations of less restrictive detention and alternatives to detention, for the final word on that front). If non-criminal immigrants are to be detained at all, the report offers a far more humane approach than today's detention system, but one that will require tremendous shifts in culture and competence at DHS.

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