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A rollback on detention reforms? After 'Holiday on ICE,' House goes after public advocate

Part of the interior grounds at the new privately-run Karnes Civil Detention Center in Karnes City, Texas
Part of the interior grounds at the new privately-run Karnes Civil Detention Center in Karnes City, Texas
Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

It's been less than three years since the Obama administration, at the time besieged with lawsuits over conditions in immigrant detention facilities, announced it would reform U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention system.

The private contractors that operate many of these facilities, also sued, would stay. But among the changes planned were revised detention standards, less prison-like conditions, and a strategy for improving government oversight.

In the realm of immigration politics, though, memories are short. Especially in an election year. And so as certain bits and pieces of the long-announced ICE detention reform plans have been taking physical shape lately, they've been getting blasted by some members of Congress.

In April, a newly-built ICE detention center in Texas touted as the first "civil detention center" was heartily booed by some conservative legislators. It inspired a House immigration subcommittee hearing titled “Holiday on ICE” during which the committee chair, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, compared revised detention standards to “hospitality guidelines” for unauthorized immigrants.

Now comes a Homeland Security spending bill just approved by the House that could do away with an aspect of the oversight plans, a "public advocate" position announced by ICE in February. A news release from then described how the appointee, ICE senior counsel Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, would "serve as a point of contact for individuals, including those in immigration proceedings, non-governmental organizations and other community and advocacy groups, who have concerns, questions, recommendations or other issues they would like to raise."

Now, as part of the DHS spending bill, the House has voted this week to bar ICE from spending any money on its public advocate position, approving a bill amendment from Republican Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee. Here's how Black was quoted today in The Hill:

"Scarce taxpayer dollars should not be spent on lobbying for illegal aliens, but that's exactly what the Obama administration wants to do," Black said Thursday. "My amendment prohibits any funding for the illegal alien 'Public Advocate' position. The administration should be using this money instead for its intended purpose: to combat illegal immigration."

Black was elected to Congress in 2010, a year after the Obama administration announced its detention reform plans. At the time, in 2009, the administration was underwater with lawsuits that had been filed in recent years, including two out of San Diego that alleged overcrowding and shoddy medical care at a privately run facility there, and another over the incarceration of children, and parents, at a former prison-turned-detention center for families in Texas. A media firestorm developed, with extensive reports on detainee deaths and other problems.

Both "civil detention" and the public advocate concept came from the reform discussion that followed. Ironically, what's come since of the detention reform plans has been criticized by both the right and the left, with immigrant advocates complaining of only minimal changes.

The international human rights advocacy group Human Rights First released a report last fall critiquing the changes in ICE immigrant detention facilities so far, pointing out (although this was before the opening of the Texas civil detention center) that a large proportion of ICE detainees "are still held in jail-like facilities."