ICE turning toward old hands for new detention practices?

While immigration reform advocates wait for Congress to fix the nation's broken immigration system, the Department of Homeland Security says it’s committed to its pledge to overhaul immigration detention.

But the department needs help. And officials are looking for ideas. The agencies that run immigration detention and detainee health care are turning, in some cases, to the same people, consultants and companies that have been advising or working with those agencies for years.

For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the department’s investigative arm and jailers to some 30,000 immigrant detainees on any given day, in the fall hosted an “Industry Day” event, where agency officials outlined to an audience of mostly government contractors their plans and goals to re-make detention.

ICE officials told attendees that reform is badly needed, and acknowledged shortcomings, some of which have been outlined in a report issued by DHS in early October.

The thrust of the three-hour gathering — which attracted representatives from nearly 60 companies, consultants and detention watchers but was closed to news media — was “to begin a dialogue with current or prospective detention service providers for the purpose of sharing the basic premises of our reform efforts, secure feedback and begin to expand our market research,” according to the event posting on the government contracting Web site FedBizOpps.gov.

Attendees included various former immigration officials now in the private sector, defense contractors, the Royal Bank of Canada, IBM and a host of efficiency experts, builders and other consultants, including a company that has former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff on its board of directors.

"This is a pivotal moment right now in terms of immigration, in terms of detention reform," said attendee Nina Dozoretz who until recently ran a health-care related consulting firm. "I’m optimistic – there's a big commitment from ICE to move this forward."

Dozoretz retired in August 2004 as the associate director of the Division of Immigration Health Services after spending 20 years as a public health service official.

In November — shortly after the event and days after she spoke to CIR — Dozoretz returned to ICE to oversee the health-care overhaul for the Office of Detention and Removal Operations. She said that the reform efforts were what brought her back to ICE.

Dozoretz, who also worked as vice president for the detention monitor and ICE contractor Nakamoto Group, recently appeared in a New York Times article on the issue of detainee deaths.

Homeland Security Department officials have outlined the intended overhaul, including more oversight, centralizing contracts and a custody classification system. The pledged reforms are part of a shift from a broad-based, one-size-fits-all, lock-up system toward a more civil approach.

Mike Magee, a Homeland Security consultant who formerly ran ICE’s criminal alien program for state and local prisons and jails, said civil detention is a good idea, but will be difficult to implement.

The goal is to spend wiser and use alternatives to detention, such as ankle-bracelet monitors when detention isn’t appropriate or necessary.

On Monday, John Morton, the assistant secretary for ICE, spoke about the ongoing reform effort, including a forthcoming detainee locator system, at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

But the big money – and big challenges – remain in detaining immigrants, attendees say. ICE has signed several new contracts to build or expand immigration detention facilities in the past year. The agency’s push to track down more immigrants with criminal charges or convictions may also increase the need for detention bed space. Known as Secure Communities, the ICE program helps local law enforcement agencies screen people in custody for their immigration status.

In a recent U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing, GEO Group Inc., one of the government’s biggest contractors for immigration detention, pointed toward anticipated growth of federal detention, particularly immigrants. That means more money. From GEO's third-quarter report:

"We believe ICE will continue to emphasize the detention and removal of criminal aliens throughout the country. ICE has been allocated approximately $1.4 billion for this purpose. We believe that this federal initiative to target, detain, and deport criminal aliens throughout the country will continue to drive the need for immigration detention beds over the next several years."

For years, ICE has said that deporting criminal aliens has been its top priority, but in practice immigration agents New York Times grabbed whomever they could. This new Secure Communities program claims to re-focus its priority.

ICE has plans to roll out the program across the country by 2013, making its database available to every law enforcement agency nationwide. In the first year of its existence, ICE identified more than 111,000 criminal immigrants in 11 states.

But there’s no more money in this year’s budget for major reform, attendees were told. Senior agency officials, among them Phyllis Coven, the director of the Office of Detention Planning and Policy, and David Venturella, the director of Detention and Removal Operations, intimated that ICE will request proposals to build new detention facilities.

Plans were announced for a 2,200-bed “low-custody” detention facility in Los Angeles, but the date to submit proposals has been delayed more than a month.

“I believe these people are all very sincere and have good intentions,” said Peter Michel, CEO of iSECUREtrac, a Nebraska-based company that provides ankle-monitoring technology. “It sounds like they have a pretty big mountain to climb.”

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