Immigrants in detention


Responding to a high risk of immigration law violators vanishing before they can be deported, the government is putting thousands behind bars in facilities public and private, even town jails

In Focus -- National Security

November 09, 2007|By Anna Gorman | Anna Gorman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Aggressive immigration enforcement has led to record numbers of detainees around the nation, prompting the federal government to speed up deportations and increasingly rely on transfers and contracts with local jails and private companies.

The detainee population jumped to nearly 27,900 nationwide in fiscal year 2007, up from about 19,700 the previous year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The main reason given for the upward trend is the government's decision to end its practice of catching immigrants and immediately releasing them.

Detention is the only way to guarantee that people leave the country when their deportation is ordered, ICE officials said. Fewer than one-third of people out of custody leave the country when ordered to do so, despite their being under intensive supervision.

"If we have them detained and they are ordered removed, it's almost a virtual certainty that they will, in fact, be removed," said Gary Mead, assistant director of ICE Detention and Removal Operations. "Everything short of detention is less effective to one degree or another."

The number of immigrants deported has risen to more than 261,000 in fiscal 2007, up from about 177,000 two years ago. The 2007 fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

Groups opposing illegal immigration praise the government for locking up and deporting more immigrants.

"The administration has finally realized they needed to dramatically ramp up their detention capacity if immigration enforcement is ever to be credible," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.

But immigrants and their advocates say the high numbers have led to overcrowding and have limited some immigrants' access to medical care.

Detainees at Los Angeles' San Pedro Processing Center often had to sleep on inflatable beds and had limited access to phones, immigrants and their attorneys said. The center was temporarily shut down last month for maintenance.

"The overcrowding at San Pedro was crazy," said former detainee Eugene Peba, who was denied asylum from Nigeria and is awaiting a federal appellate court ruling. "They didn't have enough employees to take care of the detainees' day-to-day problems."

In July, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that four detention centers, including San Pedro, were over capacity. The report also noted "systemic" problems with telephones in the centers and isolated problems with medical care and use-of-force policies.

"When the number of people in detention is increasing but the number of people assigned by the government to oversee that detention is not, problems are bound to increase and keep increasing," said Ranjana Natarajan, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

ICE officials defended conditions and said there is no overcrowding. In fiscal 2007, they said, the centers run by ICE were at 95 percent capacity and the contracted private centers were at 98 percent capacity. The phone situation has been fixed and the centers' telephones are checked weekly to make sure they are working, they said.

The agency also has taken steps to improve oversight, including working with a private company that provides full-time inspectors and placing outside "quality assurance" specialists at the 40 largest centers, authorities said. Previously, inspections were done once a year at each center.

"When we find a deficiency, we correct it," Mead said. "I don't believe we have any systemic problems."

ICE's budget for bed space increased to $945 million last year, up from $641 million in fiscal year 2005.

Nearly two-thirds of detainees are held at hundreds of city and county jails. The rest are housed at eight ICE-run centers and seven private facilities.

ICE releases some detainees on bond or electronic monitoring, depending on the risk of flight.

Because of the cost of maintaining aging facilities, ICE has no plans to build more detention centers and is considering whether to transfer more facilities to private control. Contracting with private facilities provides two main benefits: flexibility in placing centers where they are needed and speed in opening them, Mead said.

ICE is also contracting more with city and county jails, which accept immigrants when space is available.

Advocates and attorneys criticize the government's reliance on local jails, saying immigrants are being mixed with the regular criminal population. Many immigrant detainees have not committed any crime other than being in the U.S. illegally, they said.

"You have 300 jails running in 300 different ways, and it's hard for ICE to manage that," said Natarajan of the ACLU. "There is no training of local jail officials and guards on ICE detention standards."

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