A new initiative by federal authorities to temporarily house illegal immigrants in converted hotels and nursing homes is the latest effort by the Obama administration to overhaul how the US treats people being detained for entering the country illegally.
In June, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) directed local law enforcement to release on their own recognizance illegal immigrants caught on minor charges and not deemed a national security risk.
Tuesday, DHS and one of its agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, released their plans for further reform. A statement says the measures focus on creating greater federal oversight of the detention system for illegal immigrants in order to improve detainee care, ensure uniform standards at detention facilities, and sort detainees by the threat they present to the US .
Immigrant- and human-rights advocates have argued that illegal immigrants are being held in inhumane conditions. But critics argue that the reforms go too far.
"We seem to be moving from detention to hospitality," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). "The administration doesn't seem to be all that serious about enforcing laws against anyone unless they are hardened criminals and that is the problem," he says.
"While you want people housed in appropriate facilities, it also has to be kept in mind that they must be kept in custody until removed – and these are not facilities designed to detain people," he adds.
Immigrant-rights groups, however, welcome the attempt to improve the conditions of detainees, though some see it as only an interim step. "These measures, albeit positive, will, at the end of the day, only relieve some of the suffering our community feels as they are torn apart by our unjust and inhumane immigration laws," says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
More broadly, however, some academics suggest that the problems facing DHS point to the need for reform of America's immigration laws.
"That DHS is having trouble finding enough room for all of the detained immigrants ... suggests that rounding up all illegal immigrants is not at all feasible," says Tomas Jimenez of the New America Foundation. "This latest news speaks to the logistic difficulty and the cost of doing so, and I think it points to the need for a more comprehensive overhaul of our immigration system – one that includes some pathway to legal residency for certain unauthorized immigrants."
The idea of some form of amnesty is politically explosive. But critics of current US immigration policy note that the immigration detention system is the fastest growing segment of the US criminal justice system.
"Detaining and deporting 400,000 people per year for non-violent immigration infractions is a bad idea," he says. "Where these people are housed is less important than the fact that so many are incarcerated."
But a "pathway to citizenship" for illegal immigrants – an idea backed by President Obama – is not the answer, says Mr. Mehlman of FAIR.
"We need an expedited process from the time they are apprehended to until they are moved out of the country," he says. "The more you let them sit around and file frivolous appeals, the more problematic the process becomes because you are filling detention beds."
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