03/13/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

ICE Pledge on Immigration Detention Tested Today at Karnes Facility

By Ruthie Epstein, Refugee Protection Program.

I've toured facilities all over the country, from rural Louisiana to rural Pennsylvania, from south Texas to Newark, New Jersey's "Chemical Corridor." They're surrounded by layers of high barbed wire fencing topped with concertina coils.

Fourteen times in the past two years, I've passed through security at these facilities. The people held inside wear color-coded jumpsuits. They live behind locked doors in thick cement-walled housing units, spending 23 hours a day in the same room where they eat, sleep, shower, and use the toilet without privacy. They receive an hour a day of outside recreation, and "outside" may be a room with an opening to the sky. Often, when family members visit, even children, they're only allowed to speak to detainees by phone, through a Plexiglas barrier.

These are not medium-security prisons; they're immigration detention centers, which hold people under the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) "civil" detention authority.

None of the people in these facilities are being held under our criminal laws; DHS's stated purpose is limited: to ensure that they appear at court hearings and comply with any removal orders. "We're not a penal institution...," John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has said. "We're not incarcerating anyone."

That's probably news to the immigration detainees. Half are held in actual jails. Almost all of the rest live in jail-like facilities.

To ICE's credit, it pledged in 2009 to shift its detention system -- which contains 33,400 beds, holds almost 400,000 detainees annually, and costs taxpayers more than $2 billion each year -- away from a penal model toward one more appropriate for civil immigration detainees. More than two years later, on March 13th, ICE will open its first so-called model facility, in Karnes County, Texas, 60 miles outside San Antonio.

Today, I'm about to pass through security for the fifteenth time, in Karnes County, and I hope this tour will be different. I hope to see detainees wearing their own clothes, rather than uniforms. I hope they'll be able to access the outdoors all day. I hope that even though they are detained in a secure facility, they'll be able to walk from their housing unit to the law library to the cafeteria. I hope their toilets and showers will offer a modicum of privacy. I hope they'll be allowed to embrace family members who visit them.

These are not radical proposals. In fact, according to corrections professionals, normalized conditions -- ones that approximate as much as possible life on the outside -- can actually help ensure the safety of both detainees and officers. I hope ICE has heeded this insight in designing the new Karnes County facility.

But even if all these modest hopes are fulfilled, I know I'll still be disappointed by what our government has not yet done. The immigration and asylum cases at the Karnes facility will be heard via video. Imagine testifying in a deportation hearing that hinges on your credibility, from jail, with your attorney and interpreter at the other end of the line and a judge miles away. Overstretched nonprofit legal service providers in San Antonio and Austin, RAICES and American Gateways, have not received increases in funding or staff to help them travel to Karnes County to provide information and pro bono legal representation referrals to the 600 detainees.

Who's detained in ICE detention centers? Asylum seekers fleeing persecution, legal immigrants who overstayed their visas, recent border crossers, and lawful permanent residents -- green card holders --with a criminal record, often nonviolent, sometimes many years old. According to ICE, in 2009 just 11 percent of its detained population had a violent criminal history. In 2011, 45 percent had no criminal history at all. Many of those held at the Karnes County facility may not need to be detained at all. They're good candidates for alternatives to detention programs, which ICE says cost $8.88 per day per person -- $100 less than detention.

ICE should increase its investment in effective alternatives to detention. And Congress should reform laws to provide for an independent assessment of the need to detain an asylum seeker or other immigrant. These changes would be a more sensible use of limited resources. And allowing a court to rule on whether a person should be detained is consistent with American ideals as well as U.S. commitments under international human rights treaties.

ICE's 2009 reform commitment was very welcome. Now is not the time to scale back that vision. Karnes County, I hope, will provide a new model for more appropriate detention conditions -- a model that will mean little if it is not just a first step in transforming all facilities where ICE holds immigrants. But ICE and other U.S. government agencies also need to put forth new models for due process, legal access, and alternatives to detention. Only then will the promised transformation of the immigration detention system be realized.

Ruthie Epstein is a Researcher and Advocate with Human Rights First. She is a co-author of the organization's report "Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System -- A Two-Year Review."