Debating Detention Reform

Reforming the management of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s nationwide detention system has been a priority item of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano’s first year in office, and promises to become an even more pressing concern in the coming year, as the nation prepares to debate the details of a comprehensive national immigration policy.
Last Thursday the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism held a hearing at which several experts assessed the current state of immigration detention in this country and what changes were necessary to better manage a system which has increased five-fold in size over the past 15 years and been roundly criticized by both civil libertarians and immigrant right’s groups.
“The Department of Homeland Security recognizes the need for enhanced federal oversight, improved detainee care and increased uniformity at detention facilities,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, co-chair of the subscommittee, said at the outset of the hearing, “Moving Toward More Effective Immigration Detention Management”
“Recognizing the need for improvement is a good first step,” Thompson said, adding, "but actually implementing those improvements will be no easy task.”
Dr. Dora Schriro, currently Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction and former Director of Detention Policy and Planning for ICE, faulted the current system for holding immigrant detainees inappropriately in local jails with ordinary criminals, often in more restrictive conditions than necessary.
“ICE lacks critical planning and management tools critical to operating a system of this magnitude,” Schriro said. Key to reform of the system, according to Schiro, was to develop new and better ways to determine the real risks posed by detainees and developing more appropriate types of detention and monitoring.
Reiterating many of Schiro’s points, Donald M. Kerwin, Jr, vice president for Programs Migration Policy Institute, said illegal immigrants should be housed based on the risk they posed and that the vast majority of immigrant detainees are dangerous. “Only 11 percent of detainees have committed violent crimes,” he said, adding that the rest should be placed in the least restrictive environment possible.
“The goal of detention reform should be to ensure that persons are placed in ICE custody in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their appearance at all legal proceedings and, if necessary, to protect the public,” Kerwin said.
He added “ICE needs to initiate a thorough inventory and review of its information systems, including ENFORCE, to ensure that they allow for informed decisions related to whom ICE must detain and whom it must consider for release, as well as which detainees must be allowed to participatein ICE’s post-removal order and custody review processes and who should be placed in alternatives to detention programs.”
Also stressing the need to advanced alternatives to incarceration like detention, Brittney Nystrom, senior legal advisor of the National Immigration Forum excoriated ICE’s “one-size-fits-all approach to detention she claimed was “a wasteful use of government resources.” Nystrom explained that alternative to detention programs that provide supervision through electronic monitoring and reporting were up to ninety percent less expensive than incarceration.
Christopher L. Crane, Vice President Detention and Removal Operations for American Federation of Government Employees National ICE Council argued, however, that proposed changes being developed by DHS and ICE to lessen restrictions on lower-risk detainees “could potentially result in heightened risks for some groups of ICE detainees as well as ICE employees and contract guards."
“In its recommendations, DHS and ICE have proposed the construction of multiple new "low-custody" detention facilities, each of which would house 2,000 detainees,” Crane said. “In its proposals, the detainees would be allowed to move freely throughout the new facilities. The agency has also proposed new regulations that would ban agents from fully searching visitors or detainees for contraband.”
"These proposed changes demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of who is housed in these facilities," explained Crane. "The detainees in these facilities are not wayward boy scouts who lifted a few candy bars from the town drug store. They are serious offenders." The majority of ICE immigration detainees have been arrested by other law enforcement agencies for crimes ranging from sex offenses, crimes of violence, and drug distribution, he added.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the immigration restrictionist group Center for Immigration Studies, also criticized the push for alternatives to detention, calling alternatives to detention “a synonym for ‘catch and release.’
“Rather than focus on a futile search for alternatives to detention,” Krikorian said, “ we would be better advised to increase ICE’s bedspace.”
The majority of criminal aliens who promise to appear for their court dates are simply lying to the immigration authorities,” he added.
Krirkorian claimed that actual physical capacity to detain more illegal aliens exists in many parts of the country in unused county jail space.
“All Americans support efforts to make detention as humane as possible,” he added. “But it’s essential to emphasize that detention is a necessary tool.”
Though the hearing, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to achieve consensus on the proper strategy for addressing the problem of overpopulated detention centers, the testimonies were useful in succinctly outlining the fundamental policy differences likely to be frequently debated in the coming year.

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