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Changes In Store For U.S. Immigration Detention

Illegal immigrants sit in a Customs and Border Patrol detention facility after being detained October 17, 2007 in Campo, California.
Sandy Huffaker
Illegal immigrants sit in a Customs and Border Patrol detention facility after being detained October 17, 2007 in Campo, California.

The secretary of homeland security says immigrants detained by the federal government for breaking civil immigration laws will now be treated more humanely. Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that fewer illegal immigrants will be locked up in jails and prisons, and more will be detained in places like former hotels and nursing homes.

"This is a system that encompasses many different types of detainees, not all of whom need to be held in prison-like circumstances or jail-like circumstances, which not only may be unnecessary but more expensive than necessary," Napolitano said.

The way things work now, officials lock up most of the immigrants in this detention system as though they're desperate, violent criminals. The fact is, the government says only about 6 percent of the immigrants they detain have been convicted of violent crimes. The rest are an assortment: Many have sneaked across the border illegally. Others have been living here legally, often for years, but now the government charges they've overstayed their visas. And thousands are applying for asylum. They say if they go back home, they'll be tortured or killed.


But officials still lock most of them up anyway while they decide whether the immigrants can stay.

NPR and the government's own investigations have found that the jails are often crowded. Sadistic guards have beaten up detainees. And some have died after they couldn't get medical care. Napolitano says the new system needs to keep track of immigrants but also meet "the standards of health and safety that law and, indeed, human decency require."

She said it will take months, maybe years to put most of the reforms in place. For instance, authorities might keep track of some immigrants using electronic ankle bracelets, instead of detaining them at all. Maybe they'll use programs in which immigrants have to report regularly to a kind of parole officer. So far, immigration specialists are giving the announcement mixed reviews.

Cheryl Little, who runs the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, gives the administration an A for working to improve things. But she gives it a C or D for not changing things faster.

Napolitano and her deputy kept saying it's a complicated system, and they want to get the changes right, so they need more studies and analysis. But legal groups and the government have done numerous studies over the years — and they're filled with specific proposals.


"The writing's on the wall," Little says. "It's pretty clear to anybody who's done this work for any amount of time what the problems are and what some quick fixes are."

The Department of Homeland Security says it will take some steps right away. For instance, it will send dozens of federal monitors to the biggest detention centers so they can start making sure detainees are treated more humanely.

Meanwhile, hard-line immigration activists criticized the administration for being too weak. Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the immigrants have to be detained. Otherwise, most of them will disappear.