This month, the Department of Homeland Security opened the Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Texas -- a state-of-the-art facility intended to symbolize the Obama administration's effort to reform a deeply troubled immigration jails system. The center, which houses only detainees with no serious criminal backgrounds, has no barbed-wire fencing. Immigrants are free to roam the facility. Those who choose to can do their own laundry.
The administration deserves praise for acting on its promise to treat immigrants as civil defendants awaiting their day in immigration court rather than as criminals serving time. Unfortunately, it hasn't moved as effectively to change the rules governing how detention centers are run. Instead, Homeland Security officials have enacted weak guidelines that look good on paper yet are rarely or inconsistently enforced.
Consider that last month the administration rolled out new standards intended to curb abuses committed by detention center staff and detainees. Among other things, the new rules improve access to mental health care and legal assistance, and establish additional safeguards for reporting mistreatment. Yet the Karnes facility, which opened after the new standards were announced, is not required to comply with them because federal officials didn't bother to write it into the operating contract. Instead, the facility will operate under 2008 guidelines, with an option to shift to the new rules later this year. Similarly, dozens of detention centers around the country operate under antiquated, less protective rules dating back as far as 2000.