There’s always a tension between ‘Do we get rid of the cage or do we make a better cage?’Ruthie Epstein, formerly of Human Rights First
The facilities are supposed to be for civil detention, not criminal detention like a prison ― being in the country without authorization is not in itself a crime. Advocates are concerned that the Trump administration’s discussion of new contracts for jails to detain immigrants is more proof that officials will disregard standards meant to make immigrant detention less punitive.
Chris Daley, an attorney with Just Detention International, said his group is “very afraid” those standards aren’t going to be enforced and that “we’re just going to lose any sense that folks are not there under criminal charges.”
None of these issues were resolved under former President Barack Obama, who oversaw record deportations during his first term and vastly expanded the use of family immigrant detention. But advocates also achieved some gains during his time in office, including increased oversight; policies that limited solitary confinement and transferring detainees; and a new Office of Detention Policy and Planning to oversee reforms.
In 2009, Obama’s first year in office, ICE made detention expert Dora Schriro the first director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning and tasked her with overhauling the immigrant detention system. She laid out recommendations for improvements on oversight and conditions, and ICE officials met with nongovernmental organizations regularly to discuss detention matters. Most of the advocates wanted to reduce immigrant detention rather than simply reform it, said Ruthie Epstein, who at the time worked on detention policy with the advocacy group Human Rights First.
“There’s always a tension between ‘Do we get rid of the cage or do we make a better cage?’” said Epstein, who now works for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “In the detention reform movement and prison reform movement there’s always that tension. I now see in retrospect even more clearly that the administration officials that we were communicating with were doing their best to figure out how to make the cage better.”