WASHINGTON — The Obama administration plans to place federal employees in the largest immigration detention facilities in the country to monitor detainee treatment.
Under the new plan, 23 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials would be placed at the largest jails to directly supervise how the detention centers are managed, according to people briefed on the government's plan. Private contractors have been doing the monitoring since 2007. Before that, it was federal employees.
While ICE is calling these and other changes to the detention system "major reforms," this, like the Obama administration's plan to enforce immigration law at the workplace, is not an overhaul. The new detention center plan includes a tweaking of past policies and some new positions.
The government has been criticized for its treatment of immigration detainees, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made detention policies a top priority for her department.
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, according to the people briefed on the plan. They spoke only on condition of anonymity ahead of an announcement expected Thursday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement gave details of its plan to immigration advocates in a conference call Wednesday evening. One person on the call, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because ICE had not made a formal announcement, said the plan includes turning a detention center in Texas for parents and their children into a women's facility and no longer placing families there. However, a separate facility in Pennsylvania will continue housing families.
Shortly after Napolitano became secretary, she created a new advisory position to focus on detention issues and arrest priorities at ICE. Napolitano, formerly the Arizona governor, named a former head of Arizona's Corrections Department, Dora Schriro, to the post. As part of its plan, the department will create yet another new position to be filled by Schriro: director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning.
Some immigrant advocates have said the federal government has failed to meet its own standards for detaining immigrants, making it unduly difficult for immigrants to defend themselves in court and fight to remain in the country.
A report released last month by the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center found that detainees have faced limited access to phones, mail and law libraries in violation of federal standards. The authors based their findings on more than 18,000 pages of documents that showed facilities across the country limited detainees' access to legal materials and transferred them without proper notice.
The agency also has been criticized for failing to provide proper medical care to detainees resulting in the deaths of some detainees and congressional hearings.
The department was forced to make changes in 2007 at the T. Don Hutto Facility, the Texas family detention center, which was a former prison.
Attorneys sued on behalf of children alleging guards working for the private prison company that runs the center disciplined children by threatening to separate them from their parents; the school day was just a few hours and families had little privacy living in cells with two bunks and a steel toilet, among other things.
Detention has grown in recent years, with the federal government holding more than 32,000 detainees each day. Over the last four years, the budget for keeping immigrants in custody has nearly doubled 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.
Associated Press writer Anabelle Garay contributed to this story from Dallas.