Editorial: If ICE is going to lock up immigration violators, it needs to do so in safe and clean facilities

A group of migrants await processing in a U.S. Border Patrol detention center in Nogales, Arizona.
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Advocates for undocumented immigrants have complained for years about the conditions in which people are kept in detention as they await deportation hearings. A decade ago the government settled one lawsuit by agreeing, in part, to no longer keep families at a detention center in Texas in their cells for 12 hours a day, and to install curtains around in-cell toilets and improve medical care, educational materials and the nutritional content of food for minors.

But other lawsuits are still pending over unhealthy conditions (including facilities that are allegedly cold, overcrowded, filthy and unhygienic) and policies that turn immigrants into $1-a-day workers in the detention centers where they’re housed. Just last year an inspector general’s report found that detainees housed at the Theo Lacey Facility in Irvine — part of the Orange County jail system — were regularly served spoiled meat, forced to use “moldy and mildewed shower stalls” and managed under jail rules for convicted inmates or those awaiting criminal trials, which the inspector general said were more restrictive than federal immigration detention standards allow.

ICE does a lousy job of monitoring the facilities where it houses detainees.


Why are conditions so bad? For one thing, ICE does a lousy job of monitoring the facilities where it houses detainees, including federally owned and operated centers, state and county jails and prisons, and private prisons, according to another inspector general’s report. ICE relies on three different monitoring regimens — one contractor and two government offices — which leads to inconsistent inspections and does not ensure “consistent compliance with detention standards or comprehensive correction of identified deficiencies.”

As a result, the report said, “the inspections do not fully examine actual conditions or identify all deficiencies.” That is unacceptable — which, fortunately, ICE recognizes. It told the inspector general that it was developing fixes.

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What’s particularly upsetting about the unacceptable conditions in which immigrants are being held is that many detainees do not need to be held in the first place — especially children. A large portion of people in detention are guilty only of being in the country illegally. Unless they pose a legitimate flight risk or a danger to public safety or national security, they don’t need to be detained pending deportation.

And when they are, the government must be more diligent in ensuring that the facilities in which they are housed are clean and safe, and operated with proper oversight.

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