WASHINGTON — Immigration officials are immediately ending the housing of families at a former prison in central Texas as a first step in transforming immigration detention from a criminal to a civil system.
The families will either be sent immediately to a much smaller facility in Pennsylvania or to other alternatives, considered on a case-by-case basis, John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement told reporters Thursday. For some the alternative might be reporting to community homes, often run by nonprofit companies or religious groups, where the immigrant can come and go, but federal officials can still keep track of them.
The government has been criticized for its treatment of immigration detainees, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made revision of detention policies a top priority for her department.
Morton said they will continue to detain people on a large scale but want to detain them in "a thoughtful and humane way." He said these changes can be made while still detaining immigrants who are criminals or dangerous.
"This effort is going to lead to a redesign ... that is focused on the creation of a a system that is marked by and driven by the civil detention philosophy," Morton said. "It is going to have much greater uniformity than it presently has."
The redesign, expected to take several years, is intended to bring more order to a system of 32,000 beds spread out between local and state jails, private facilities and a few federally owned detention centers. Federal officials have negotiated more than 300 contracts with local and state officials and private companies to obtain access to most of these beds.
Morton said Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to have a relationship with contractors but may eliminate some agreements. In addition, he said administration wants a system with "much more pronounced emphasis on ICE oversight."
"We are not talking about moving to a wholly owned and operated government operation at this point," Morton said.
To increase the oversight, the Homeland Security Department will put federal employees in charge of monitoring detainee treatment in 23 of the country's largest detention facilities. ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said which facilities would get the government monitors hadn't been decided yet.
Separate from the long-standing contracts for bed space, private contractors have been brought in for monitoring since 2007, when they were hired to provide an outside view. Before that, federal employees did the job.
Immigration advocates said not detaining families at T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center in Taylor, Texas was a good first step. But they said the Berks Family Detention Center in Pennsylvania also has problems such as the children sleeping in separate rooms from their parents at night. Hutto has held up to 400 people; Berks has 84 beds.
"We still have a lot of concerns about Berks, and we continue to feel strongly that detaining families is inappropriate," said Michelle Brane, a detention expert the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Many families in detention and often those who stay the longest came to the country seeking asylum.
In addition to the family changes, ICE, which is part of Homeland Security, intends to hire a medical expert to review the health care protocols for the detention centers and give an independent review of medical complaints.
Shortly after Napolitano became secretary, she named Dora Schriro to advise her on detentions and arrests. Schriro headed Arizona's corrections department when Napolitano was governor of the state.
As part of its plan, the department will create another new position to be filled by Schriro: director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning. Among other things, she'll oversee population, detention and health care management as well as accountability.
Two panels of groups interested in immigration detention will be formed to advise ICE on general polices and detainee health care.
Detention has grown in recent years, and the cost of keeping immigrants in custody has nearly doubled over four years to $1.7 billion, according to ICE.
Several bills were filed last week by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to revamp the immigration detention system. The bills call for setting minimum detention standards and for the homeland security secretary to enforce laws on treatment of detainees.