May 18, 2008

Reports on detained immigrants' care misleading

Reports on detained immigrants' care misleading, U.S. official says
In Austin visit, assistant homeland security secretary touts recent improvements at centers such as one in Taylor.
By Juan Castillo


Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Homeland Security Department agency that oversees immigrant detentions has taken significant steps to improve its oversight and accountability, the agency's assistant secretary asserted Saturday in Austin as she disputed recent news reports detailing poor medical care and deaths at its facilities.

"Any death is absolutely regrettable, and so we want to make sure we're taking all the aggressive steps we can to improve" oversight, said Julie Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Myers' comments followed her speech at the American Payroll Association's national meeting at the Austin Convention Center.

News reports by a number of media organizations recently detailed poor and possibly negligent medical care for immigrants held over the past five years in a vast network of jails which the government has built across the country, some in Texas. About 32,000 people are held in ICE custody in the facilities on a given day, awaiting deportation or a resolution in their immigration case. About 300,000 pass through the system each year. ICE says its detainee population has increased by more than 30 percent since 2004.

In a series last week, The Washington Post reported that 83 detainees have died in, or shortly after, custody during the past five years and that inadequate medical care might have contributed to 30 of those deaths. Reports have described a lack of transparency at the facilities and confusion surrounding the deaths.

Critics, including legal, civil rights and immigrant rights groups, charge that a ramping up of enforcement of federal immigration laws after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is straining federal agencies like ICE and their ability to keep up with an increasing numbers of detainees. Congress is considering a number of bills that seek improvements in detainee conditions.

Myers said the news reports were misleading because they overlooked procedures the agency had put in place to increase oversight and accountability, such as the recent hiring of an independent contractor to conduct compliance reviews at its jails. Previously, ICE's Office of Detention and Removal did the inspections.

Myers said ICE had not had a suicide in its facilities in the past 15 months and that deaths have decreased while the number of people in custody has grown significantly.

"Is there room for improvement? I think there absolutely is, but I think we've made substantial progress," she said.

Myers said the agency anticipates building more facilities for families and children, like the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, one of two in the country that houses family groups. Though she did not elaborate, she said ICE is also exploring how best to deal with immigrants in the future, steps that might include alternatives to detention if officials can be sure immigrants will show up for their court proceedings.

Congressional spending committees have urged federal immigration officials to exhaust other options, including homelike, nonpenal settings, before holding children and families in custody. Those directives have been at the heart of opposition to family detention by immigrant and civil rights advocates in Central Texas, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last year, the ACLU and the University of Texas Law School's immigration clinic sued the government, challenging the treatment of families. A settlement led to numerous improvements at the Hutto center and to the first-ever federal standards for treatment of immigrant women and children held at ICE facilities.; 445-3635

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