Immigration Official: Detention System Must Change

The way this country detains illegal immigrants is about to change dramatically — at least if the Obama administration follows through on a proposed overhaul unveiled this week. The man responsible for making it happen: John Morton, the assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security. He tells host Guy Raz that the system has exploded in size and become too dependent on private contractors.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

This hour, stories of immigrants and the debate over how those who come in illegally are treated when they're caught.

This week, the Obama administration announced its intention to overhaul the way illegal immigrants are detained in our nation's prison system. About 400,000 people are detained each year for violating immigration law; many of them nonviolent offenders. The Department of Homeland Security released a report this week that describes a costly and wasteful penal system filled with people who pose little or no risk to the general population.

Well, the man charged with fixing that system is John Morton. He is assistant secretary for immigration and customs enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security.

Secretary Morton, welcome.

Mr. JOHN MORTON (Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security): Thank you very much, Guy. Pleasure to be here.

RAZ: The report describes a system of private, public, county and city jail. The kind of an archipelago where, you know, those who violate immigration law are held. But there is little thorough oversight as the report talks about. How did our system get to that point?

Mr. MORTON: You saw an explosive growth over the last few years. We went from having 5,000 beds on average every day to nearly 32,000...

RAZ: A day.

Mr. MORTON: ...on a given day.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORTON: And that growth was largely achieved through agreements with private contractors or state and local jails.

RAZ: Private contractors who run prisons.

Mr. MORTON: Absolutely, who run private detention facilities. And the system as a whole didn't reflect the fact that we detained many different kinds of people. We don't have a uniform population of simply criminal offenders. We have none criminals, we have women, we have families, we have violent offenders. And those people can be detained differently - in fact, should be detained differently. They don't all need to be held in a prison.

RAZ: Many prisons that hold immigrants who entered illegally are, as you mentioned, private, for-profit companies. Are you considering either scrapping the government's relationships with those prisons or at least regulating them more closely?

Mr. MORTON: The latter. However, our present immigration detention system in my view has become too dependent on contractors. At the end of the day, government should be overseeing and actually running these facilities.

RAZ: One of the proposals in the report is to create a tiered system. You would place detainees who pose little risk to the general population in converted hotels possibly or converted nursing homes. But if most of these immigrants are not national security risks or even local security risks, why detain them at all?

Mr. MORTON: Here's why: this reform effort is not about whether or not we detain people; it's about how we detain them. Many people who are not violent offenders or criminals are nonetheless very serious risk of flight, and it's that serious risk of flight that requires detention. It just doesn't always require it in a prison-like setting.

One final thing of importance is I'm going to give a lot of thought to alternatives to detention: ankle bracelets, wrist bracelets or intensive supervision programs; you have to call in to a probation officer, report to an office every week. If I can ensure that people will show up for their hearings and leave when they're ordered through these kinds of alternatives, I'm very willing to consider them. Detention is not end in and of itself. It's just a means of ensuring that people leave.

RAZ: John Morton is the assistant secretary for immigration and customs enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. MORTON: My pleasure, Guy.

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