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US Homeland Security Department Proposes Detention Reform

US Homeland Security Department Proposes Detention Reform

US Homeland Security Department Proposes Detention Reform

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The United States is looking to reform the way it detains illegal immigrants. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to immediately implement some reforms, and is expected to ask Congress to approve alternatives to detention facilities.

The sun was barely up when Peter Yune looked out the peephole of his house and saw 10 police officers waiting on his doorstep. "They just barged in," Yune says, "pushing me to one side and they told me to stay still."

In the aftermath, police took away Yune's wife, Jong Park, for immigration violations. Yune concedes Park was living in the U.S. illegally after she was denied permanent residency. Government officials say Park was convicted in 2003 for promoting prostitution. And an immigration judge ordered her removed from the United States.

For 24 hours Yune couldn't find his wife in the detention system. He couldn't concentrate on work. Through an attorney, he learned Jong Park was incarcerated, four hours from his house, in Portsmouth, Virginia.

VOA spoke to Park by phone from inside the jail. We asked how she's doing after a month behind bars.

Park says she is only permitted to step out of her jail cell to eat. And that she is housed with violent criminals.

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"My wife is not a criminal," Yune explains, "Sure, she didn't have a green card [residence permit]. For her to overstay, if you want to call that a criminal activity, I can't argue with that."

Immigration advocates say it happens too often. Non-violent detainees placed in criminal jails, where family, friends, and attorneys can't find them.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wants Congress to reform detention guidelines. "We need to better manage the entirety of our detainee populations," she said.

Secretary Napolitano says nearly 400,000 immigrants were detained last year. Some 32,000 are currently in jail. One alternative under consideration is to use electronic bracelets to monitor them outside of jail. Another idea, sponsorship by community or church groups. Park's family favors that.

Assistant Secretary John Morton explains how it would work. "You have a trusted, and reputable community organization that's willing to step forward and say we'll ensure this person comes to their hearings and, if they lose, shows up at the airport to be removed," Morton said.

But that doesn't sit well with Dan Stein of FAIR--the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We feel they are going to wind up putting aliens [immigrants] in Hilton Hotels, Holiday Inns, and facilities which in a sense create incentives to remain here, fighting for the right to stay when they have no fundamental case," Stein said.

Stein also worries that alternatives give immigrants the ability to disappear before their court date.

"I won't run away, so I have my family. I think. I'm not some murderer, I'm not some thief," Park said.

In 2005, after weeks in custody, detainee Sandra Kenley died in the same jail as Park. Stein and others say quicker deportation is the answer.

"People come here as guests of this country. If they violate the terms of their status and are ordered deported, they can go home immediately. No one is in detention on a coercive basis. They can leave this country any time they want," Stein states.

But there's one teenager who's hoping that doesn't happen. Park's daughter, 14 year old Soobin. "Since my mom's gone, everyone feels that. It's kinda hard to replace that around here, so it's really like empty," she said. "It feels empty."

For now, Soobin tries to concentrate on her homework, knowing she can see her mom next week for a 20 minute visit, with a wall between them.