WASHINGTON—The U.S. is weighing looser standards for some immigration detention centers, including scrapping certain guidelines governing the restraint of pregnant women and ensuring children can visit detained parents.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has drafted new standards that don’t include a host of current requirements, according to people who have read them.
ICE told Congress last year that it planned to issue new standards for scores of detention facilities, such as county jails, that hold both immigrants awaiting deportation and criminal prisoners for more than a week. The agency said the existing standards “are very prescriptive and often conflict with local and county jails’ policies and procedures,” according to budget documents.
The agency hasn’t made the proposal public, but has provided a draft to a number of organizations for feedback. The American Immigration Lawyers Association, or AILA, provided The Wall Street Journal with the comments it submitted. Others who have read the document confirmed the group’s account and provided additional information.
ICE issued its first national detention standards in 2000, overhauling them twice since then to make them stricter and more specific. Facilities holding both immigrants awaiting deportation and criminal prisoners, referred to as nondedicated facilities, operate under various standards, depending on when their contracts with ICE were signed, along with ICE’s evaluation of facility capabilities and cost.
The standards help the agency decide whether to contract with facilities to house detainees awaiting decisions on deportation and provide guidelines for ICE inspections.
Several government investigations have concluded that the current standards aren’t closely followed or enforced. As a result, some immigrant advocacy groups say the new guidelines will have limited impact.
Still, the proposal furthers a Trump administration push to give local operators more freedom to set their own rules.
ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said the proposed standards “eliminate or greatly reduce a number of prior standards based on ICE’s experience with local law-enforcement partners and the understanding that local practice appropriately covers these requirements.”
The proposed new national detention standards don’t include language from a 2011 overhaul—the most recent—saying women in active labor should never be tied down or shackled, according to text quoted in comments by the AILA. They also exclude a requirement from 2000 that a medical professional must approve any restraints on pregnant women, instead leaving approval to a supervisor.
“It’s just a crucial thing to have that women should not be in restraints when they’re pregnant. And certainly not when they’re in labor or delivery,” said Julie Abbate, national advocacy director for Just Detention International, who also reviewed the proposed revision.
Under President Trump, ICE has already reversed an Obama-era policy that ordered immigration officials to release pregnant women from detention in most cases. After media reports of pregnant women being shackled around the stomach and miscarrying in detention, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill in July to reinstate the Obama policy and ban almost all shackling of pregnant women.
The revised ICE standards also don’t include a provision from 2011 saying facilities should institute procedures that allow children to visit their detained parents, and immediate family members detained in the same facility should be allowed to visit each other, said Kevin Landy, a former Obama political appointee who oversaw that administration’s detention-center overhaul effort and helped the AILA draft its comments.
“There is no reference to children visiting. That language is not in the document,” Mr. Landy said. It also doesn’t include a commitment by ICE from 2000 to arrange visits by children if the facility cannot do so.
In other cases as well, the proposed guidelines are more permissive than the first government standards from 2000. The draft standards no longer include a prohibition on housing nonviolent detainees with violent offenders, Mr. Landy said. The draft also limits the number of letters that the government will pay for detainees without money for postage to send to legal counsel to five pieces a week, according to the AILA comments. Previously there was no limit.
ICE’s Ms. Bennett said standards that have been eliminated or condensed include those regarding emergency plans, marriage requests, nonmedical emergency escorted trips, contraband and population counts, she said. She declined to comment further on the contents of the draft standards.
The U.S. has 121 nondedicated facilities that hold detainees longer than 72 hours, according to the most recent figures from October, which don’t break out facilities that hold detainees longer than a week. Those 121 centers house about 16,300 ICE detainees a day, or about 40% of all detainees. The remaining detainees are held at dedicated ICE centers, nearly all of which are governed by stricter standards.
The proposed standards would introduce some new requirements for the roughly 90 of the 121 facilities that operate under the first detention guidelines set in 2000. Those 90 facilities house about 8,000 detainees. The new standards would, for example, add more requirements regarding detainee transport and searches.
The executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, Jonathan Thompson, said adding requirements “would present operational challenges which can significantly impact the sheriffs’ ability to run a safe and secure facility.”
ICE declined to say whether the revised standards will apply to all existing contracts, new contracts, or only those operating under the 2000 guidelines. Ms. Bennett said that would be determined once the draft is completed.
The largest nondedicated detention center—the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Texas, which holds nearly 1,000 detainees a day—operates under the 2011 standards. That facility is owned by Florida-based GEO Group Inc., one of the country’s largest private prison operators. GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez said the company will abide by any new standards ICE issues for its centers.
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