ICE Earns a “C” Average on Detention Reform Report Card

by Kathryn M. Doan, Esq.

On October 6, 2009, John Morton, Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), announced that the Obama administration would be taking significant steps to reform the nation’s immigration detention system.  By the government’s own admission, the system used to detain and deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the last decade functioned with little oversight or accountability and was routinely failing to safeguard the health and safety of immigrant detainees.

Assistant Secretary Morton pledged that “with these reforms, ICE will move away from our present, decentralized, jail-oriented approach to a system wholly designed for and based on ICE’s civil detention authorities.”  According to Assistant Secretary Morton, the reform effort would lead to improved medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence and ICE oversight.

Now, one year later, a coalition of immigrants’ rights groups have found that while ICE leadership remains committed to the reform effort, the pace of change has been slow on the ground, with many immigrant detainees still subject to harsh prison conditions.  According to “Year One Report Card: Human Rights & the Obama Administration’s Immigration Detention Reforms,” a joint report by the National Immigrant Justice Center, Detention Watch Network, and Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, progress toward achieving detention reforms have been hindered “by the need for ICE leadership to achieve a cultural shift among immigration agents in the field.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • ICE leadership has demonstrated strong commitment to reforming the immigration detention system, engaging with NGOs and other relevant stakeholders to advance ICE’s reform agenda.
  • ICE has taken steps in the design and development of a civil detention system including the launch of the on-line detainee locator system and the development of a risk assessment tool.
  • Immigrant advocates nationwide continue to report widespread due process and human rights violations, including the overreliance on incarceration, mistreatment by guards, denial of access to legal service providers, inadequate medical care, misuse of solitary confinement, and discrimination against sexual minorities.
  • Oversight, transparence and accountability are critical to achieving reform, and yet these are the weakest features of the reform process thus far.
  • While the 2009 reform did not address ICE”s enforcement strategies, immigration detention and enforcement are intrinsically linked.  ICE cannot achieve a “truly civil” system so long as it continues to detain immigrants on a massive scale and does not increase referral of low-risk and vulnerable individuals into alternatives to detention programs.

According to the report, a key factor in ICE’s ability to significantly improve its decidedly mixed report card on detention reform efforts will be to reduce the number of immigrants who are being placed in detention facilities by expanding the use of alternatives to detention for those immigrants who do not pose a security threat.  The report advocates that ICE amend its current risk assessment tool to create a presumption for release for certain vulnerable immigrants including survivors of torture, victims of violence and those suffering from mental health issues.  The report also points out that alternatives to detention are a much more cost effective as well.

In addition to taking steps to accelerate the transition from a penal model of detention to a truly civil model, the report also states that ICE needs to address on-going deficiencies in the provision of medical, dental and mental health care to immigrant detainees, as well as promote a “culture of accountability” among front-line and supervisory staff within ICE in order to insure that problems are resolved in an effective and timely manner.

Click here for a full copy of the report.


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