Immigration Detention Reform, One Year Later

The immigration detention system will be a "truly civil detention system," one aimed at safely and humanely holding people accused of civil immigration violations until they are deported or released. That was the pledge made by the Obama administration about a year ago. Despite implementing measures such as the Detention Monitoring Council, reform of the detention system has not evolved as anticipated.

On any given day, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detains approximately 32,000 noncitizen immigrants in 300 facilities across the nation. On a yearly basis, the number of detainees held soars to 400,000. Very few changes were implemented on the ground and human rights abuses still occur. According to Barbara Frey, convener, Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, "Current US detention policy is not proportionate and necessary."

One such detainee is Pedro Guzman, detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since 2009. Mr. Guzman was arrested by ICE at his home and is now being detained at Stewart Detention Facility in Lumpkin, GA, about a nine hour drive from his home in North Carolina.

Advocates for detention reform have been closely monitoring - and assessing - the performance of the Obama administration. A report, Year One Report Card: Human Rights and the Obama Administration's Immigration Detention Reforms was released today. The report was a joint project of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), Detention Watch Network, and Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. ICE public information formed the basis of the report, although a request under the Freedom of Information Act made in May has not been answered. Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director, Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center, noted that several organizations and individuals declined to participate in the survey for fear of retaliation. According to Ms. McCarthy, this is a clear sign that ICE still has a long way to go towards civility.


  • Persistent human rights violations at many detention facilities indicate that ICE leadership's commitment to reform has not been adopted by local ICE officials nationwide.
  • Due to the continued absence of robust oversight measures at detention facilities, local staff can disregard internal ICE policies and procedures resulting in grave human rights violations. Recent steps taken by the agency to improve oversight practices, including the appointment of regional detention managers and the creation of a Detention Monitoring Council, have not substantially increased transparency and accountability.
  • Systemic reform cannot be achieved if ICE and Congress continue to ignore the enormous human and economic costs of harsh and arbitrary immigration enforcement and detention practices. Exorbitant spending on expanding enforcement programs and detention beds remain fundamental obstacles to the detention reform process.


ICE leadership must work with its field offices to implement the agency's reform agenda and bring the U.S. government in compliance with its international human rights obligations. Specifically, ICE must:

  • Use cost-effective alternative to detention programs for noncitizens who do not pose a security threat, to ensure that individuals are not unjustly deprived of their liberty.
  • Provide the least restrictive setting for detained immigrants and facilitate civil, non-punitive detention, which includes access to lawyers and legal materials, case management services, regular family visits, recreation, and the freedom to worship.
  • Offer appropriate medical, dental, and mental health care to detained individuals and remedy the medical neglect, mistreatment, and abuse practiced by some local personnel.
  • Standardize and monitor practices and policies across local detention facilities to promote a culture of accountability among local officials, and ensure that all human rights grievances are addressed professionally and expeditiously.