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U.S. to overhaul immigration system

Detainees will be ranked by risk factors, and new detention centers will be built.

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration will review the procedures under which the United States detains about 380,000 illegal immigrants a year, exploring the use of converted hotels and nursing homes as it seeks to transform a prison-based system into one tiered according to the risk posed by individual detainees, officials said yesterday.

Detailing an overhaul announced in broad terms in August, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and John Morton, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the measures were intended to make the nation's much-criticized, $2.6 billion-a-year immigration detention system safer and more efficient, without adding to its costs.

The changes come as President Obama has been pressured by immigrant advocates to reform a 32,000-bed system that has quadrupled in size since 1995, while he has said that tough enforcement policies are key to winning approval by Congress for any push to legalize illegal immigrants.

"We accepted that we were going to continue to have - and increase, potentially - the number of detainees, so with that, we want to accomplish several goals," Napolitano said, including greater federal oversight and accountability of more than 300 local jails, state prisons, and private facilities.

Napolitano said that by next October, ICE would rank detainees by flight risk and public danger, set new detention-facility requirements based on those risk levels, and issue bids for two new-model detention centers.

Morton will meet with contractors at the end of this month to explore converting residential facilities to house noncriminal and nonviolent persons, such as those seeking asylum, that could be cheaper to operate and less restrictive for occupants.

On Sept. 1, ICE housed about 31,075 illegal immigrants. Of those, 51 percent were felons; 11 percent of those had committed violent crimes.

Morton also said ICE would implement a medical classification system within six months to identify detainees with special health needs.

The agency vowed to speed up efforts to provide an online detainee-locator system for attorneys, family members, and others, and to provide Congress this fall with a plan to implement less costly alternatives to detention, such as remote supervision using electronic bracelets. As of Sept. 1, ICE supervised 19,169 illegal immigrants in alternative programs.

After the news conference. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D., N.Y.) called the focus on detention misguided, since about half of ICE detainees have no criminal record and await deportation for administrative violations. "It would be more cost-effective to track these individuals with an electronic monitoring device than to build brand-new facilities to detain them," he said.

Civil-liberties groups said that they were encouraged but that fundamental reforms were needed to ensure due process and access to legal counsel for illegal immigrants who are sometimes wrongfully deported or detained for years.

"Meaningful reform of the system must focus not only on the conditions under which immigrants are being detained, but on why they are being detained in the first place," said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Immigrants' Rights Project.

Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First said asylum applicants who had been detained should be able to ask courts to review those decisions.