PHOENIX (Reuters) - The United States, criticized for holding illegal immigrants in overcrowded and poorly run jails, on Tuesday announced plans to convert hotels to detain some noncriminal immigrants.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said illegal immigrants ranging from criminals to newly arrived asylum seekers would be held in different facilities according to the risk they pose.
“This is a system that encompasses many different types of detainees, not all of whom need to be held in prison-like circumstances,” Napolitano told a conference call.
Referring to noncriminals such as newly arrived asylum seekers, Napolitano said, “We will begin efforts to house these populations near immigration service providers and pursue different options like converted hotels or residential facilities for their detention.”
About 32,000 immigrants to the United States are held at any given time in about 350 local jails and private prisons, which have been criticized for providing poor medical care and oversight.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Immigration reform has been a contentious issue in U.S. politics. Congress has failed to pass reforms amid differences over how to deal with about 12 million illegal immigrants in the country and demands border security first be addressed
The changes are part of a broader overhaul of the immigration detention system to “centralize, organize, provide oversight (and) ensure greater federal accountability,” Napolitano said.
Other reforms include doubling the number of ICE employees at detention facilities that house about 80 percent of immigration detainees, to provide greater day-to-day oversight, and providing alternatives to detention, like ankle bracelets.
Napolitano said efforts are also under way to develop an online locater system for families and lawyers to find detainees, as well as efforts to centralize and oversee more than 300 immigration detention contracts, and improve medical care for detainees.
“These new initiatives will improve accountability and safety in our detention facilities as we continue to engage in smart and effective enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws,” she said.
President Barack Obama is currently seeking support among Democratic and Republican lawmakers to overhaul the broken immigration system in the United States.
He supports offering illegal immigrants in good standing the chance to pay a fine and become citizens, at the same time cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers and hardening security on the porous Mexico border.
The move to overhaul the immigration detention system -- in which more than 90 detainees have died since 2004 -- was welcomed by Democrats in the U.S. Congress, where they are a majority.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said a review by the former director of detention planning and policy at ICE, Dora Schriro, which was used as a basis for the reforms, contained “several constructive recommendations.”
“The perception of the United States around the world and our role as a champion of human rights is greatly diminished when we fail to treat those in our custody consistent with our values as a nation” he added.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Cynthia Osterman