U.S. Immigration Detention Reforms Unfulfilled after Three Years

New York City – Human Rights First says it’s time for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to reaffirm its commitment to overhaul the U.S. immigration detention system and to make progress on reforms that were promised three years ago today.  The organization notes that ICE has made some progress in recent years, but the agency continues to hold the overwhelming majority of its nearly 400,000 detained asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees in jails and jail-like facilities across the country that cost  taxpayers of approximately $2 billion each year. “Over the past three years, ICE officials took significant steps to improve a system plagued with problems,” said Human Rights First’s Ruthie Epstein. “Even so, it has been a far cry from the transformation promised in 2009. The administration should redouble its efforts to correct what Secretary Napolitano called a ‘wrong’ paradigm.” Human Rights First observed that ICE has made some meaningful changes to the troubled immigration detention system. During the past three years, it has centralized management of all contracts in a single office and reduced the number of total facilities. It has also launched an online detainee locator and worked to reduce detainee transfers and improve oversight and accountability in a sprawling system. In addition, ICE improved its parole guidance for detained asylum seekers and developed a risk classification tool to systematize detainee release and classification decisions, addressing a major management gap in the detention system. Despite those positive steps, however, the U.S. immigration detention system continues to look and operate like a jail system. Only three facilities holding about 900 total ICE detainees – or about 3 percent of ICE’s daily detained population – now offer less restrictive conditions, including greater outdoor access, contact visitation with family, and a more normalized environment within the detention facility. Former prison officials and other corrections experts have found that less penal conditions in detention can actually help improve safety inside a facility. Human Rights First has closely monitored ICE’s reform efforts over the past three years and has visited 18 detention facilities across the country that hold one-third of ICE’s detained population. The group’s assessment of those facilities and the administration’s progress on its promised reforms was detailed in a report issued last fall – “Jails & Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review.” Today, Human Rights First urges ICE to ensure that U.S. detention policies and practices reflect its own commitments, as well as its international human rights obligations. To achieve this goal, ICE should:

  • End the use of prisons, jails, and jail-like facilities to detain civil immigration law detainees;
  • Conduct individualized assessments of the need to detain and then place detainees in facilities that provide a more appropriate normalized environment for immigration law detainees;
  • Develop and implement new standards not modeled on corrections standards to specify conditions appropriate for civil immigration detention;
  • Expand the use of less costly Alternatives to Detention (ATD) for those who cannot be released without additional supervision, and ensure that cost savings are realized in the program’s expansion by reallocating part of the detention budget to an increase in the ATD budget; and
  • Ensure that all facilities holding immigration detainees are covered by the PREA standards, including the supplemental immigration detention standards developed by the bipartisan federal National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, as clearly intended by Congress and the Commission it created.

In September and October 2012, Human Rights First will convene formerly detained individuals, policy experts, academics, elected officials, advocates and the private bar working in the immigration detention and corrections/criminal justice fields to have a frank discussion about ways to improve the U.S. immigration detention system. Those participating in each event will share knowledge, experiences, and best practices as part of Human Rights First’s new Public Dialogues Series, “Dialogues on Detention: Applying Lessons from Criminal Justice Reform to the Immigration Detention System.” The four day-long events will take place at Human Rights First’s university partners in Austin, Texas; Irvine, California; Tempe, Arizona; and New Orleans, Louisiana.


Published on August 6, 2012


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