In response to widespread criticism from immigrant advocates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced steps Tuesday to improve conditions of detainees and allow them easier access to attorneys. But Napolitano stood firm on the Obama administration’s efforts to continue strict enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws. “We accept that we are going to continue to have and increase, potentially, the number of detainees,” Napolitano said.

But in her mixed message of humane treatment and tough enforcement, Napolitano made it clear she intends to reform detention operations from what she described as a patchwork of privately-run and government-run facilities with different standards in different locations.

Cheryl Little, executive director of Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, welcomed Napolitano’s initiatives but urged Homeland Security officials to move more rapidly in reforming the system and freeing immigrants, especially those seeking asylum or with serious illnesses. “We give them credit for recognizing that the current system is fundamentally flawed and attempting to improve it,” Little said. “However, the devil is in the details and there’s an urgent need for more immediate relief. Far too many immigrants who are neither dangerous nor likely to flee are currently in detention and should be fairly considered for release.”

For decades, Little has monitored detention practices in Florida and has testified in Congress about conditions in immigrant detention facilities, including Krome in west Miami-Dade. She recently met with Napolitano and John Morton, the assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Napolitano did not say asylum seekers or sick detainees would be freed as a rule, but said asylum seekers will be housed in facilities “commensurate with their needs” such as “converted hotels or residential facilities.”

Morton, in answer to a question from El Nuevo Herald, said one option under consideration is electronic ankle bracelets for asylum seekers. “Ankle bracelets are one of the many different forms of alternative to detention that is very much on the table,” Morton said. He also said detention facilities should be located in major urban areas, so detainees can more easily contact attorneys. In the past, some detainees have been removed to remote facilities, leaving their attorneys and families scrambling to make arrangements to see them or unaware of their whereabouts.

Napolitano said federal immigration authorities will establish an online locator system to help families and lawyers quickly find detainees.

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