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Jail Break: Re-Developing the Detention System for Immigrants

Throughout the course of the Bush Administration we heard numerous horror stories that managed to escape from the walls of America’s detention centers about the mistreatment of immigrant detainees. There were accounts of immigrants who had been abused by guards, asylees who had been detained despite being granted status, mothers who were not allowed access to breast pumps, children who were held behind razor wire, women giving birth while chained to a bed, sick men being denied any sort of medical examination or treatment for pain relief, people misdiagnosed as psychotic or even drugged to facilitate their transfer. The list goes on and on. In fact, from January of 2004 through April of 2008, over 70 immigrants died while in detention, the vast majority due to limited or no access to health care, or just falling through the cracks of the system.

The Obama Administration has thus far been mostly mum on the immigration issue. In fact, just earlier this summer, the Administration rejected a federal court petition to make legally enforceable rules for immigrant detention centers, which set off immigrant advocacy groups disappointed with the President’s lack of departure from Mr. Bush’s immigration enforcement policies. However, just today the Administration announced an ambitious initiative to reform the crippled immigrant detention system. While details were vague, and the first steps remain months ahead in the future, the plan is to consolidate detainees in more suitable centers for non-criminal immigration violators and to establish a more centralized authority over the system with more direct oversight of individual detention centers.

Among the points outlined in the plan are:

• Effective immediately: families will no longer be sent to T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Austin, Texas, a center which drew heavy fire from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups for its substandard conditions and harsh treatment of detainees, particularly children. Hutto will be converted into an immigration jail for women, and families in detention will be re-routed to the Berks Family Shelter Care in Leesport, Pennsylvania, which is better equipped to handle families. In the meantime, the Administration is currently halting plans for construction of three new family detention centers;
• A new philosophical approach to immigrant detention: according to Mr. John Morton, a career prosecutor and head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, “the system’s purpose [is] to remove immigration violators from the country, not imprison them”;
• Creation of the new Office of Detention Policy and Planning to review and redesign all facilities, programs and standards, with a particular focus on detainee health care;
• Re-Development of the Office of Detention Oversight, to put a manager each of the 23 largest detention facilities to promptly respond to issues and conduct routine and random checks and inspections; and
• Eventual construction of new civil detention centers in order to relieve the dependency on vacancies in the criminal justice system.

In its most drastic departure from the Bush Administration’s immigration policies yet, the Obama camp, just 200 days into its first term, is taking some much-needed action on a long-overdue reform of a detention system that is not only in chaos, but in crisis.