The 250-bed immigrant detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., is barely distinguishable from several warehouses that surround it. Dingy cream-colored bricks rise to meet windows covered by bars, and the whole thing is surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire. Emmanuel Ogbum has nightmares about it.
“It was hell in there,” says Ogbum, a Nigerian immigrant who spent eight months inside the facility before he was granted asylum and set free in January.
Ogbum’s release is welcomed as a small sign of progress by immigration advocates who have prodded the Obama administration to overhaul the detention system, which is under stress from a record number of deportations. Almost 400,000 people passed through the system in the past year.
“It’s a big operation,” said Michelle Brane, director of the Detention and Asylum Program for the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It’s hard to reform and improve a system if you keep bringing people into it.”
But the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is trying to do just that. So far, the results are mixed.
“We’re in many ways just trying to get ourselves up to the level of industry best standards,” said Phyllis Coven, ICE’s Acting Director of Detention Policy and Planning.
Last October ICE announced a plan to move toward a “truly civil detention system,” one that takes into account that immigration proceedings relate to civil, not criminal, charges, and moves away from a punitive model based on prisons.
By January the agency had reduced the number of detention centers from 340 to 270 in an effort to establish consistent standards across the sprawling network of federal facilities, private prisons and local jails. In July it launched an online system for locating detainees. Revised guidelines now require they have better access to medical care, legal assistance and outdoor recreation. The rules are enforced by new on-site monitors, but they lack the force of law so violators cannot be sued.
“Transparency and access to facilities by outside monitors is critical and that hasn’t quite happened yet,” said Brane.
Immigrant rights advocates say ICE has fallen behind on other goals. In order to prioritize who should be detained, the agency has shortened the time it takes to release many asylum seekers like Ogbum who have a credible fear of persecution, sometimes while their cases are still pending. But detention remains the norm for immigrants brought into custody after living in the United States, even those who have children or family ties here that make them less of a flight risk.
“Until ICE limits detention to only those rare cases where it has been shown necessary to ensure public safety, the human rights crisis in the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system will persist,” said Emily Tucker, Policy and Advocacy Director at Detention Watch Network.
Tucker recently co-authored a report card on ICE’s progress with promised reforms. It gave the agency a “D” for failing to establish “alternatives to detention” such as less restrictive facilities where people check in regularly but are free to come and go. Pilot programs have had success with this model. In one case, ICE released 70 immigrant men into the care of the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey, and none of the men have since missed a court appearance. These alternatives are already possible under existing law, but remain underfunded. About five percent of detainees – 23,000 immigrants – participated in them last year.
In the meantime, ICE has adjusted the interior of several facilities that are former prisons to make them more suited for non-violent civil offenders. Centers that hold women also provide education aimed at reducing sexual harassment by guards. New detention centers are also in the works.
“We’re designing facilities that have a lot more greenery, provide for more privacy by holding fewer people in a room, and have individual bathrooms,” said Coven. “They’re not going to be luxury accommodation, but they will be less penal institutions.”
The changes have their opponents; primarily detention guards who are worried their jobs will become more dangerous if the people they’re guarding gain additional freedom of movement.
“The lack of technical expertise and field expertise has resulted in a priority of providing bingo nights, dance lessons and hanging plants to criminals, instead of addressing safe and responsible detention reforms for non-criminal individuals and families,” Union President Chris Crane wrote in a memo after his members approved a “vote of no confidence” in ICE leadership.
But Coven said ICE is committed to systematic change that takes into account the safety and security of both detainees and staff.
“A lot of this is about attitude of staff and management toward the individuals,” she noted. “There isn’t necesarily the need to have a correctional attitude in the facilities we operate.”
If all goes as planned, ICE says its detention overhaul will save taxpayer dollars. Lower-security facilities cost less to operate, and in reports to Congress the agency said residential or parole-type programs cost $14 per day, compared to an average $100 per day for regular detention.
The shift toward a “truly civil system” could take years for the largest investigative agency in the Department of Homeland Security. But the changes can’t come soon enough for people like Emmanuel Ogbum.
“I’ve never been locked up in my life before coming the U.S.,” Ogbum said. “This was emotionally and physically scarring and I’m still feeling the effects to this day.”