Obama: Immigration Detention System Must Change

Last week the Obama administration announced reforms to an immigration detention system increasingly tainted by allegations of abuse. It is estimated that 300,000 non-citizens are held in detention each year, and that number continues to rise. As more immigrants enter the system, the government has been flooded with stories of abusive treatment toward those being detained, including deaths due to lack of proper medical attention and the mistreatment of minors. Join host Michel Martin for a conversation with journalist Tyche Hendricks, who covers immigration for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally, another hot button issue. Last week the Obama administration announced ambitious plans to change the way the country houses and detains those who are suspected of violating immigration laws.

It's estimated that over 300,000 non-citizens are held in detention each year, a number that has been increasing. And along with that increase, have been complaints about the conditions in which detainees have been held. The complaints range from inhumane treatment of minors to the deaths of detainees due to a lack of medical care.

Joining us now, to talk about what the immigration system detention reforms might mean and what we might expect to see in the next year is Tyche Hendricks. She covers immigration for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. TYCHE HENDRICKS (Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle): Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So Tyche, President Obama announced during his trip to Mexico this past weekend that no major changes to U.S. immigration policy will be made until next year, so why do you think the administration is changing detention policies now?

Ms. HENDRICKS: Well it's - immigration is a big ball of wax. The immigration policy overhaul he was talking about in Mexico is really to do with who we let into the country and sort of what are the systems for letting people in as immigrants or temporary workers.

This overhaul they announced last week is something a little different and it has to do with how we detain people who are either in deportation proceedings or folks who've come to the country seeking political asylum.

And, as you mentioned, there's been a lot of bad press, lately, over concerns with the lack of health care, of people dying in custody, of treatment of children, and some real concerns about due process protections, which is the part that I've investigated most closely.

MARTIN: A number of things have been criticized about our detention system, which is, as you pointed out, in essence, they're a closed unit where it's very hard to get access to; and but conditions within some of these facilities themselves have been very much criticized. Can you just describe some of the proposed changes and how will they be implemented?

Ms. HENDRICKS: The current system uses private prisons and uses a lot of excess bed space in county jails and state prisons, so people in immigration detentions are scattered over about 350 different facilities. I think, under this proposed overhaul, there would be first of all, more federal oversight of these many different facilities and trying to standardize conditions and set some minimum standards for humane treatment and access to due process.

And gradually, over time, the Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, has said that they want to move from a kind of a penal system to more of a civil detention system; and potentially centralize people in to more federally run centers that would potentially be closer to cities where people could get access to legal aid services if they couldn't afford a lawyer.

MARTIN: One move that starts immediately, that has been almost universally applauded, is the government's decision to stop sending families to this former state prison near Austin, Texas that drew an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and really scathing news coverage for putting young children in prison whose crime, if you want to call it that, was essentially that their parents had made the decision to bring them here. How then, is the government going to not allow people to just disappear again?

Ms. HENDRICKS: Well, they said that they will take this Texas prison and make it a women's facility, take families out of there. As you say, they've been roundly criticized and in fact, successfully sued for housing children behind concertina wire, locked up for hours and hours with very little access to recreation or education. And these are children who may be the children of undocumented immigrants, they may be the children of people seeking political asylum who are following the rules but who are locked up until their cases adjudicated.

So there will still be a family detention center in Pennsylvania, but one other measure that the government is starting to talk about and which some of the advocates and human rights organizations have been pushing very strongly, and that is to look at alternatives to incarcerating people, to let more people out on bond or with like electronic surveillance or an electronic ankle bracelet they use sometimes to track people who need to appear for hearings.

MARTIN: You've been covering a phenomenon which I'm sure many Americans would be surprised by, that there are actually American citizens who've been held in detention and immigration facilities for quite a long time. Tell us more about that.

Ms. HENDRICKS: I found that there are hundreds and possibly thousands of U.S. citizens who have been held in immigration detention. Some of them have even been deported. And I think one of the key differences that we find with immigration detention, that's different from criminal custody, is in criminal proceedings the Constitution says that everyone has the right to legal council, and that if you can't afford a lawyer yourself that the state will provide one for you.

That is not the case for people in immigration custody and those proceedings are considered administrative, and a lot of people are falling through the cracks.

MARTIN: And finally Tyche, the immigrant advocates groups have applauded the administration for bringing what they consider to be more humanity to some of these detention policies, but there are a number of areas in which immigrants rights groups are still critical of President Obama for continuing some of the same policies as the Bush administration.

What are some of those policies that they are continuing, and is that going to be a continued source of tension, I guess, with immigrant rights groups?

Ms. HENDRICKS: I think it will be a continued source of tension and I think President Obama is kind of walking a line between his critics on the right and the left on how he approaches immigration. And he and Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, have taken a pretty clear line that they will be tough enforcers of immigration law, both at the borders and within the country, and so immigration enforcement and detention will continue to be central to their approach.

I think it may also be a tactical decision and something that President Bush also pursued, that if you want to get a more liberalized immigration policy you also need to be the bad cop some of the time.

MARTIN: Tyche Hendricks covers immigration issues for the San Francisco Chronicle and she was kind enough to join us from KQED in that city.

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MARTIN: Thank you much for speaking with us.

Ms. HENDRICKS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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