The head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement on Thursday announced an overhaul of a system of detaining illegal immigrants he believes is disjointed and too reliant on contracts with private industry.
ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton said detention centers holding ICE detainees soon will see increased federal oversight. The announcement comes as private prison company Corrections Corporation of America prepares to board up to 500 immigration detainees in its North Georgia Detention Center in midtown Gainesville, site of the former Hall County Jail.
"This isn’t about whether we are going to detain people," Morton told reporters in a conference call Thursday. "We are going to continue to detain people. This is about how we detain people."
On any given day ICE detains approximately 32,000 people who are in the country illegally in more than 350 facilities, many of them operated by private contractors. Most are held 30 to 90 days prior to deportation or hearings in federal immigration courts.
The system has come under fire from advocacy groups that claim detainees are denied access to basic needs such as communication with relatives, legal materials and, in some cases, explanations of their rights. In some detention centers, subpar medical care or the refusal to provide medical services has been alleged.
Morton noted that ICE’s role in detaining those in the country illegally is different than in traditional jails or prisons where inmates are held on criminal violations.
"We need a system that reflects our basic authorities and responsibilities as a detainer, and that our detainment is civil in nature," he said.
Morton said the goal is to improve custodial conditions, medical care, fiscal prudence and federal oversight of detention centers.
Special ICE detention managers will directly monitor operations at the nation’s 23 largest immigration detention centers, which house more than 40 percent of all detainees, Morton said.
"We do not have government employees directly overseeing detention, and that’s going to change today," he said.
It was not immediately known if the North Georgia Detention Center, with a capacity of 500, would rank among the largest facilities.
CCA, which will operate the facility as part of an agreement between ICE and Hall County, said in a prepared statement Thursday that the company did not have all the details of the new reforms.
The company, which manages about a fifth of all ICE detainees, said it is "prepared to work collaboratively with ICE and all of our government partners to meet any changes as a result of these reforms, while ensuring the highest quality of safe and secure operations."
CCA officials maintained the company has always worked closely with ICE to ensure facilities meet required detention standards, and said its facilities routinely are audited for compliance.
Other steps announced by ICE Thursday include the formation of two advisory councils that will report concerns to a new office of Detention Policy and Planning, to be led by former Arizona Department of Corrections Director Dora Schriro.
Morton said the new office will focus on population management, detention management, program management, health care management, alternatives to detention, special populations management and accountability.
"We want a system that is open, transparent and accountable," Morton said.
Morton said an independent medical expert would review complaints from detainees who claimed they were denied proper medical care.
Morton said the government would continue to rely on arrangements with state and local governments and private companies. Hall County has an agreement to house detainees for ICE, with CCA acting as the subcontractor.
"We are not talking about having a wholly (federal) government-operated system," Morton said. "We will continue to work with our partners in state and local governments and private contractors."
Morton said ICE is grappling with the challenges of "350 different arrangements that are very different from each other."
"We need to adjust the balance so there is greater direct oversight," he said.
The National Immigration Law Center responded to Thursday’s announcement by pointing out that ICE has yet to make any of its detention standards legally enforceable. The group, which earlier this month issued a report critical of immigration detention, questioned how facilities in violation of standards would be penalized.
"Our analysis of ICE’s own reviews shows that without legislation to enforce standards and punish centers found to be in violation of them, our immigration detention system will continue to be a mockery of the justice system," NILC staff attorney Karen Tumlin said.
Gainesville attorney David Kennedy, who has heard his clients complain about conditions in immigration detention centers, sounded a similar note of skepticism.
"More oversight is certainly needed," Kennedy said. "However, with private, for-profit companies running detention centers, there will always be an incentive to cut corners and save money at the expense of people who are housed in these detention centers. The mere fact the government says they are going to more closely supervise this system and try to hold these private companies accountable does not change that."