A Detention Mess

Sunday, August 23, 2009

THE VAST majority of foreigners locked up on civil immigration violations and awaiting deportation are neither criminals nor accused of any crime, but you'd never know it from the way they are treated.

Scattered across a network of 350 local and state jails, private, for-profit prisons and a handful of federal facilities, more than 30,000 detainees are held on any given day in conditions that range from adequate to dirty, deplorable and dangerous. The system, which houses five times the number of detainees it did in the early 1990s, is riddled with violations of the federal government's own standards for detention. It is an embarrassment for a nation that prides itself as a beacon of human rights.

Recognizing that the problems with the status quo are serious, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that oversees the detention system, recently announced an overhaul. This was welcome news and a clear sign that the Obama administration would not continue the Bush administration's indifference. John Morton, the new director of ICE, said that the driving principle of the reform would be to create "a truly civil detention system" in which the federal government itself will build and manage some new facilities and professional monitors will be stationed permanently in others. We hope that at a minimum those steps will avert the worst abuses of the past, particularly instances in which health care for critically ill or injured detainees has been bungled or denied.

Another heartening move was the announcement that the government would immediately stop holding families at the 512-bed T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, a former state prison outside Austin where immigrant parents and their children were warehoused behind razor wire in shameful conditions.

Still, no one expects that the detention system, which is expected to hold 400,000 immigrants this year, is about to disappear or even shrink. To the contrary, although the Obama administration has curtailed the wholesale roundups of undocumented workers at factories, it is pressing ahead with other enforcement measures. So deportation proceedings and detentions on a large scale are likely to continue, at least until the country gets the sweeping immigration reform -- including a path to citizenship for the millions of people still living in the shadows -- that it needs.

In the meantime, we worry that the detention system overhaul, while welcome, does not go far enough to prevent abuses. In particular, the government has rejected proposals that it make its own standards for humane detention enforceable by allowing individual detainees and their advocates to seek relief in court.

The administration argues that it would be too time-consuming and unwieldy to formulate regulations governing such a huge detention; officials say that they are better off simply monitoring violations and insisting on compliance. But there is no better way to ensure compliance and make a sprawling bureaucracy accountable than promulgating clear regulations and allowing those governed by them their day in court. When that happens, then we'll know the country is on its way to establishing the sensible and humane detention system that the Obama administration says it wants.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company