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Obama administration announces changes in immigration detention system

August 6, 2009 | 11:03 am

The Obama administration announced plans today to change how immigration violators are detained in the U.S. by shifting from a system that relies on a network of jails and private prisons to one that is designed specifically for civil detention. 

As part of the plan, which will take years to implement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will review its roughly 350 existing operating contracts and will increase oversight throughout the system.

“We need a system that is open, transparent and accountable,” said John Morton, assistant secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The number of detainees is expected to stay about the same – at 32,000 -- but many could be housed in new facilities specifically designed for immigration detention.

“This isn’t about whether or not we are going to detain people,” Morton said. “We are going to continue to detain people on a large scale. This is about how we detain those people.”

Advocates, who have long criticized the immigration detention system, said today they were encouraged but that they would be watching the changes closely.

“Only time will tell if the reforms announced today amount to lasting change or simply creative repackaging of prior policies,” said Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center.

Tumlin said the plan lacks one essential element: teeth. She said the real solution is making the detention standards into law so that they are enforceable.

-- Anna Gorman