WASHINGTON — Federal officials announced a reform plan for immigration detention that aims to standardize operations and move away from the current practice of housing detainees at state and local facilities.
During the next three to five years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will design facilities in an effort to improve immigration detention system oversight, conditions, medical care and fiscal efficiency, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Federal authorities will also implement a series of reforms to strengthen direct federal oversight and management of immigration detention policy, facilities and practices as the government seeks to standardize conditions at detention facilities throughout the United States.
The restructuring plan is designed to move immigration enforcement and detention from the current decentralized approach that relies primarily on excess capacity in state and local correctional institutions.
Approximately 400,000 individuals pass through the immigration detention system annually, with more than 30,000 ICE detainees housed at 350 detention facilities at any given time, according to official figures.
However, the majority of these detention facilities — jails operated by county law enforcement agencies or privately operated detention centers — were designed for criminal justice rather than civil detention purposes and are not managed by ICE staff.
“In the past five years, ICE has experienced considerable growth in immigration detention,” says John Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security and ICE director. “This growth has presented significant challenges to a system that was not fundamentally designed to address ICE’s specific detention needs.”
The new Office of Detention Policy and Planning will be headed by Dora Schriro, former director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, and staffed by a team of experts in detention management, medicine and healthcare administration. Schriro, who is also a former aide to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, will report directly to assistant secretary Morton.
The ODPP is responsible for designing a new civil detention system, finding facility sites and creating standards for civil immigration detention facilities to reflect ICE’s mission objectives and serve agency needs. Officials will consider access to legal services, emergency services and transportation hubs in assessing where to locate facilities.
The reforms are not expected to reduce the number of individuals held in detention, officials say. However, illegal immigration has been declining amid the economic downturn and tougher immigration enforcement climate.
Federal officials also recently announced a shift in enforcement policy to prioritize the apprehension and removal of illegal aliens with criminal records and those currently incarcerated on criminal offenses.
“This change marks an important step in our ongoing efforts to enforce immigration laws smartly and effectively,” Napolitano says. “We are improving detention center management to prioritize health, safety and uniformity among our facilities while ensuring security, efficiency and fiscal responsibility.”
The Office of Detention and Removal Operations will continue to have full operational responsibility for the detention system and all new facilities designed and opened as part of the restructuring and reform plan.
The ODPP will conduct a systematic evaluation of the immigration detention system and establish benchmarks to assess progress across seven focus areas.
The ODPP is tasked with ensuring facility conditions and day-to-day functions, including detainee classification, discipline and grievance processes, are appropriate.
The ODPP is also responsible for healthcare and program management, ensuring the timely provision of medical, dental and mental health assessment and services, and access to religious services, visitation, recreation amenities and law library resources. An independent medical expert will be appointed to review medical complaints and denials of requests for medical services.
As part of the overhaul, the ODPP will develop a national strategy for the implementation and effective use of alternatives to detention, such as community supervision. In addition, the agency will seek to improve the management of special-needs populations, including women and families, and geriatric and vulnerable populations, officials say.
ODPP is also tasked with improving accountability within the immigration detention system and ensuring that ICE personnel execute the core functions of detention oversight, detainee classification, discipline and grievance review according to agency guidelines.
“Implementing these reforms will improve medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence and ICE’s critical oversight of the immigration detention system,” Morton says.
Several restructuring actions will be implemented with immediate effect as the comprehensive review gets under way, officials say.
Federal authorities will appoint ICE detention managers to work at 23 facilities that house more than 40 percent of detainees to monitor and ensure appropriate conditions of custody. Authorities also established the Office of Detention Oversight, within the Office of Professional Responsibility, to inspect facilities and investigate detainee grievances. ODO agents will conduct frequent routine and random facility inspections from a network of regional offices.
ICE plans to stop housing families at the T. Don Hutto residential facility in Taylor, Texas. Officials recommend that the 512-bed facility house female detainees only, with families housed at the 85-bed Berks County residential center in Leesport, Pa.
Two advisory groups of local and national organizations will be formed to provide input on detainee healthcare and detention policies and practices to the assistant secretary.
Although officials did not provide cost estimates, implementation of the restructuring initiative will be funded from existing operational budgets.