Immigration Detention Reforms Are More Than Just Window Dressing

One year ago today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, released a report written by Dr. Dora Schriro, then planning director for ICE's Office of Detention Policy and Planning. Dr. Schriro's report provided an unprecedented review and evaluation of the U.S. immigration detention system, outlining key recommendations needed to achieve reform.

We met repeatedly with Dr. Schriro while she conducted research for the report, sharing our observations and stories from the many detained women we've met with over the years.
In the past year, ICE has followed many of the report's recommendations, taking significant steps toward creating policies that will achieve reform. Our recommendations and guidance helped shape and inform these policies.

A few notable accomplishments include establishing a detainee locator system so that family and friends can determine where loved ones are being detained; ending detention of immigrant families at the infamous T. Don Hutto detention facility in Texas; and developing a risk-assessment tool that will help ICE officials make smarter decisions about whom they choose to detain.

Many of the reforms, however, are now on hold because critics are accusing the agency of being soft on criminals. But the truth is, at the time that Dr. Schriro wrote her report, only 11 percent of detained immigrants had histories of violent crime. We -- like Dr. Schriro -- believe that most detainees held in the system do not need to be held in detention as they pose no threat.

One of the most vocal critics of the new ICE reform is in the ICE union. The rank-and-file field agents accuse ICE leadership of putting officers' safety at risk by implementing these reforms. However, it's important to remember that Dr. Schriro is an expert on detention and has worked with criminal populations in correctional facilities for years. She is in no way "soft" on crime. To suggest that her recommendations promote dangerous or irresponsible public policy is both unfounded and absurd.

Other critics have reduced reform efforts and improvements to facility conditions to potted plants and bingo night. But reforming the U.S. detention system is about much more than house plants and games. Dr. Schriro's recommendations stress that we are obligated to reform a broken and inefficient system in which detainees have been dying due to negligent medical treatment.

The T. Don Hutto facility serves as a model for how effective these reforms can be -- and how such changes neither lead to the unwarranted release of dangerous criminals nor pose security risks for facility staff. While the initial "reforms" were cosmetic and superficial, the facility has since come a long way.

On my last trip to Hutto, I met with detained women who told me that they are no longer confined to their cells, and now have freedom of movement and access to outdoor recreation 12 hours a day. They also told me that access to medical and mental health care has greatly improved.

Staff were also pleased with the changes, and said that the day-to-day operations were running smoothly. They acknowledged that these changes have created an environment where detainees are less stressed and have fewer behavioral issues.

Any government agency has a responsibility to improve its performance and to do so responsibly. We should demand no less from the immigration detention system. A system supported by more than $2 billion tax dollars a year should be pressed hard to account for how that money is spent. As our country faces one of the worst economic times in its history, we should not be wasting taxpayer money detaining nonviolent immigrants who are not a flight risk in substandard facilities.

As a signatory to numerous international human rights treaties, the U.S. has an obligation to be judicious about who we detain and to ensure that those held in government custody are treated humanely.

The Women's Refugee Commission detention and asylum program advocates for the rights and protection of immigrant women, children and families.