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Alternative housing to be used to hold some immigrant detainees

October 6, 2009 | 12:57 pm

Nonviolent immigrant detainees could be housed in converted hotels, residential facilities or placed on electronic ankle bracelets for monitoring as part of a series of reforms planned for the nation’s detention system, Department of Homeland Security officials announced today.

The changes are intended to help overhaul a system that houses an average of 32,000 illegal immigrant detainees every day across the country and has been criticized for its unsafe and inhumane conditions. Those detainees include women and children.

“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,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The department plans to build two new detention centers, including one in California.

But Napolitano said that, while some detainees have violent criminal pasts, others are asylum seekers with no records and should be housed at facilities “commensurate with the risks that they present.”

The reforms began in August, when Assistant Secretary John Morton pledged to make the system more centralized and accountable and more suited to the government’s civil detention needs.

Since then, the department has started reviewing more than 350 contracts with local jails, state prisons and private facilities and plans to make the system more centralized and accountable. Officials have also doubled the number of personnel to monitor the biggest facilities and are developing an online system to help families and attorney locate detainees.

The controversial T. Don Hutto Center in Texas has been converted from a facility that holds families to one that holds only women.

The proposed changes are expected to reduce costs for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has a nearly $2.5-billion annual budget for detention and deportation. For example, some alternatives to detention can cost as little as $14 per day, while detention can cost more than $100. Napolitano will submit a plan to Congress this fall on alternatives to detention.

Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants Rights Project, said she was pleased that the Obama administration was devoting resources to reforming immigration detention but said the government should reassess whether everyone arrested for immigration violation should be detained at all.

“It’s obviously encouraging that the administration seems to be taking seriously the immigration detention system and how it needs an overhaul,” she said. “But it’s not simply about where people are detained. It’s about how they ended up in detention and why they are staying there.”

-- Anna Gorman

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