USA, Immigration detention overhaul at hand

Obama, detainees for immigration crimes should not be treated as criminals

07 October 2009. A more fair and humane system for immigrants in custody has been detailed yesterday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and John Morton, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The Obama administration has responded to the appeal of immigrant advocates and civil-liberties groups who rally for a more just and safe detention of illegal immigrants.

In just over a decade, immigration detention in the US has tripled and is likely to increase even further. Around 380 thousand people accused of immigration violations are detained each year in a 32,000-bed system, that has quadrupled in size since 1995.

These include asylum seekers, torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, long-time lawful permanent residents, and the parents of US citizen children, who currently may be detained for months or even years without due process and with limited or no access to family and to legal or medical assistance throughout their detention.

About half of ICE detainees have no criminal record and await deportation for administrative violations. Only 11 percent of the other half have committed violent crimes. But many are detained alongside individuals incarcerated for criminal offenses and are often put in excessive restraints.

Detention facilities are in fact required to comply with ICE (the US immigration and customs enforcement) detention standards, but these standards are not legally binding and oversight and accountability for abuse or neglect in detention is almost nonexistent, leading to practices in violation of international standards.

The immigration detention reform announced by the Obama administration is based on the acknowledgement that the immigrant detainee population is largely not dangerous and that its detention or supervision should be adjusted in ways appropriate to the level of danger or flight risk.

“Serious felons deserve to be in the prison model,” Secretary Napolitano said in a previous interview to the New York Times, “but there are others. There are women. There are children.”

ICE will develop a risk assessment and custody classification, which will enable detainees to be placed in an appropriate facility, with plans to house non-criminal, non-violent populations, such as newly arriving asylum seekers, in facilities such as converted hotels, nursing homes and other residential facilities.

The agency will aggressively monitor the conditions of confinement of more than 300 local jails, state prisons, and private facilities that make up the nation’s patchwork of rented jail space, gaining greater federal oversight and accountability.

To enhance detainee medical care, a medical classification system will be devised that will improve awareness of an individual detainee’s medical and mental health conditions from the time the individual first enters detention.

The agency will speed up efforts to provide an online search system for attorneys, family members and others to locate detained aliens (although this is complicated by privacy issues and by the fact that many detainees share names) and will expand legal support services.

A plan will be submitted to Congress this autumn to implement a nationwide program of alternatives to detention (ATD), such as remote supervision using electronic bracelets, in general less costly than detention – $14 a day at most per person, compared with more than $100 a day – and an assessment tool to identify aliens suitable for ATD.

The implementation of a medical classification system to identify detainees with special health needs will allow their placement in an appropriate detention centre and the proper medical care.

"These new reforms will establish consistent standards across the country, prioritizing risk, strengthening oversight and increasing efficiency in our immigration detention system," Assistant Secretary John Morton said.

The measures are intended to make the nation’s much-criticized, $2.6 billion-a-year immigration detention system safer and more efficient, without adding to its costs, as each of the reforms announced are expected to be budget neutral or result in cost savings through reduced reliance on contractors to perform key federal duties and additional oversight of all contracts.

by Federica Gaida

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