By Cristina Fernandez-Pereda, New America Media

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may not be collecting enough data about its own operations to meet legal and humanitarian standards for detention. This was the principle finding of a report released Thursday by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

The study, "Immigrant Detention: Can ICE Meet Its Legal Imperatives and Case Management Responsibilities?" analyzes data for all 32,000 detainees held in ICE custody during a single night in January 2009. Without the ability to track its detainees adequately, the report warns, the agency will be unable to adhere to legal mandates, administer review processes or abide by its national detention standards.

"The report underscores what advocates have seen for years: that we don't know who's detained or why, that they don't have a release process, that they don't track family ties or make legal immigrants available for alternatives to detention," said Andrea Black, network coordinator for Detention Watch Network.

The results were released on the heels of ICE's announcement that it plans to revamp its detention system. ICE intends to address concerns related to health conditions of its detainees, centralize its detention system, and depend less on local jails and private prisons.

"This report provides a roadmap for meeting the data needs essential for the new ICE detention initiative to succeed as it attempts to move from a criminal incarceration model to a civil detention system," said MPI Vice President for Programs Donald Kerwin, co-author of the report.

Researchers found that the diversity of the imprisoned population may make it harder to gather data and track cases. The 286 facilities hold a population of men (90 percent), women, families, unaccompanied children, unauthorized immigrants, asylum seekers, torture survivors, lawful permanent residents and persons claiming to be U.S. citizens.

The detainees come from 177 countries. Thirty-eight percent come from Mexico, followed by 13 percent from countries in Central America. They are most commonly held in facilities in southern and U.S.-Mexico border states, with 68 percent of the total in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

The report also revealed key information about how long detainees remain at ICE facilities.

"The data confirms that people are detained for much longer than ICE reports," Black said. The average length of detention was 81 days, but some have been detained for much longer. Thirteen percent of detainees were held for three to six months, 10 percent for six months to one year, and three percent for more than one year.

"To me, it's still startling to see how fast the detainee population has grown," said Kerwin. Sixty percent of the detention centers in use today, he said, were created since 2004.

ICE's ability to manage detainees is also compromised by the presence of private contractors who run the country's large-scale facilities. Half of the detained population is held in 17 centers, which each houses more than 500 detainees. Three-quarters of these are operated by private contractors. "As a result, ICE has limited control over facilities and detainees," Black argued.

The report also found that more than half of ICE detainees (58 percent) do not have criminal records, even though mandatory detention laws primarily apply to criminals. This is one of the consequences of untargeted detentions, according to Black, and has led to an overcrowded detention system.

In order to reform the detention system, the Department of Homeland Security has focused on population management, learning who is in the system, analyzing conditions of detention centers and alternatives to detention.

Dora Schriro, special advisor to DHS on ICE, Detention and Removal and, since last month, director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, said the agency is launching various programs to address access to health care, courts, recreation, family visits and tailor the system to the special needs population.

"Accountability is the chore of government responsibility, not just oversight and data gathering," Schriro said. "We are committed to continue the improvements."

But immigrant rights advocates expressed skepticism over the lack of transparency. "We are pleased to see the changes in process, but we are skeptical and concerned," said Black. "Data has been extremely difficult to access. ICE denied basic information, even to know how many detention centers they work with."

Schriro noted that the administration is attempting to address some of these concerns. DHS is engaged in conversations to create systems that will track detainees, report medical requirements, and discern eligibility for alternatives to detention. It is also conducting a study to learn the costs of these processes.

The administration, however, is struggling with the same problems advocates and organizations have been dealing with for years, Schriro said. In their efforts, she said, they have to look back, to analyze what didn't work, and ahead, to implement the necessary changes. Regarding alternatives to detention, for example, she said, they aren't optimistic. "The more we scrub, the more we see it is not usable," Schriro stated.

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