SAN ANTONIO — In an agreement U.S. immigration officials hope will begin to reshape the entire 30,000-bed detention system, some asylum-seekers and immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings could soon be held in facilities where they can wear their own clothes, participate in movie and bingo nights, eat continental breakfasts and celebrate holidays with visiting family members.
It could end confinement in prison-like facilities – complete with razor wire, jail-style uniforms, armed guards and partitions that prevent physical contact with loved ones – for those who have never been convicted of a crime and are not considered a threat.
Corrections Corporation of America, the largest contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has reached a preliminary agreement to soften confinement, free of charge, at nine immigrant facilities covering more than 7,100 beds – a deal that ICE officials see as a precursor to changes elsewhere.
Overall, the facilities are expected to be less prison-like, offering freer movement for detainees, fewer pat downs and better access to legal resources. The agreement calls for fresh vegetables and access to self-serve beverages along with cooking and exercise classes, according to a list released by ICE.
CCA will soften "the look for the facility with hanging plants, flower baskets, new paint colors, different bedding and furniture" and allow lengthy visits from friends and family who can provide outside packages or food for special celebrations under changes to be made over the next six months.
ICE Director John Morton announced last year that the agency would make detention facilities less prison-like because immigrant detainees are being held on civil immigration charges, not criminal offenses, though it was unclear at the time what changes would be made. The agency has long maintained that detention is not a punishment and that it ensures the immigrants show up for hearings. Nonetheless, it has relied heavily on contract facilities built to house criminals.
Negotiations continue with the remainder of the nearly 300 facilities under contract with ICE, mostly facilities owned by state and local governments, but "it's our goal to provide these types of reforms with all the facilities that ICE contracts with," said ICE spokesman Brian Hale.
ICE wants to create a less restrictive environment for those who are low-risk and not criminals, but those with criminal histories or who are otherwise a danger will remain in prison-like settings, he said.
New systemwide detention standards are still being drafted, but the agreement with CCA signals the less-restrictive modifications the agency wants for many detainees.
Union leaders representing guards object to the new plans, saying they're dangerous.
"It's absolutely insane, the changes they're making," said Chris Crane, president of AFGE Council 118/ICE, the union that represents 7,000 ICE officers but not the contractors. "It just makes for an absolutely unsafe environment, not only for the detainees, but for the officers."
He contends that many detainees could be drug dealers or gang members – even if they haven't been convicted.
A 2009 review by The Associated Press of everyone in custody nationwide on a single night found that nearly three-fifths of detainees had no criminal convictions, even for minor offenses such as trespassing. Many are held only a few nights before being deported, while others – particularly those seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries – can stay in custody for months or years while their cases are decided by an overburdened immigration court system.
Nearly 10,200 foreigners were granted asylum after going through immigration courts in fiscal year 2009.
But Crane said that doesn't mean detainees aren't criminals or gang members since local prosecutors, lacking resources, sometimes just dump "criminal aliens" into ICE custody.
"Does that mean you can't treat people humanely? Absolutely not," he said. "But we need to talk about the circumstances that these detainees were put in custody."
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher immigration enforcement, said plans to soften the look of facilities, particularly those that house families, are appropriate. But he's concerned the changes, like cooking and exercise classes, go too far.
"From this memo, it sounds like they're turning them into Club Med," Mehlman said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, raised similar concerns in a letter to ICE officials last week, saying softening the facilities – even for low-risk detainees – creates a "moral hazard."
Immigrant advocates object to the plans, too, but for another reason: they don't go far enough.
"They're really coming up with very minimal changes," said Andrea Black of the Detention Watch Network.
Most of the low-risk detainees who might get softened facilities shouldn't be detained at all, especially when less expensive electronic monitoring is available, she said.
"We're still talking about people being in detention for years on end," said Black. "This is their response? To offer fresh carrots and bingo nights?"
Associated Press Writer Suzanne Gamboa in Washington contributed to this report.