DHS Plans to Reform Immigrant Detention Policy


This morning the New York Times broke the story of the Department of Homeland’s Security new effort to reform the immigrant detention system.

The Obama administration intends to announce an ambitious plan on Thursday to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a “truly civil detention system.”

While I’m not sure what a “truly civil” way of detaining non-criminal immigration violators would look like, I do know that this is at least a step in the right direction for the administration, which has been frustratingly unwilling to tackle this issue until now.

The best news of today’s announcement is that the administration will stop sending families to the T. Don Hutto “family” detention center near Austin, Texas.

The T. Don Hutto Detention Center where families are being detained in inhumane conditions - even children, pregrant women and

Hutto was one of the more outrageous moves by the Bush administration to “get tough” on immigration – by jailing whole families, including small children, in inhumane conditions.

Before [an] A.C.L.U. lawsuit was settled in 2007, some children under 10 stayed as long as a year, mainly confined to family cells with open toilets, with only one hour of schooling a day. Children told of being threatened by guards with separation from their parents, many of them asylum-seekers from around the world. Only through judicial enforcement of the settlement…have children been granted such liberties as wearing pajamas at night and taking crayons into family cells.

This is, perhaps, the most symbolic departure from Bush-era policies in this reform effort. However, in order to truly reform this system, I think that there must be a drastic change made to the underlying network of corporations profiting off of the detention of immigrants. Take the recent quote from Daniel Cooney, chairman of the board of the Donald Wyatt Center, an immigrant detention center in Rhode Island:

“Frankly, I’m looking at it like I’m running a Motel 6. I don’t care if it’s Guantanamo Bay. We want to fill the beds.” He was eventually fired in the fallout from this remark, but his candor is revealing. Immigrant prisoners are valuable commodities to local jails.

So, I applaud the administration for (finally) tackling this urgent issue, but I am only cautiously optimistic. As the New York Times notes:

Details are sketchy, and even the first steps will take months or years to complete.

But it is a step in the right direction – a step that should be incorporated into a much broader comprehensive immigration reform plan.

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