Immigration Detention:

Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen Management and Oversight of Facility Costs and Standards

GAO-15-153: Published: Oct 10, 2014. Publicly Released: Oct 10, 2014.

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What GAO Found

Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses two different methods to collect and assess data on detention costs; however, these methods do not provide ICE with complete data for managing detention costs across facilities and facility types. One method uses the agency's financial management system to estimate total detention costs per detainee per day for the purposes of developing ICE's annual detention budget request. However, ICE identified errors in the entry of data into this system and limitations in the system make it difficult for ICE to accurately record expenditures for individual facilities. ICE's other method involves the manual tracking of monthly costs by individual facilities for the purposes of reviewing data on individual facility costs. However, this method does not include data on all costs for individual facilities, such as for medical care and transportation, and such costs are not standardized within or across facility types. Thus, ICE does not have complete data for tracking and managing detention costs across facilities and facility types. ICE has taken some steps to strengthen its financial management system, such as implementing manual work-arounds to, among other things, better link financial transactions to individual facilities. However, ICE has not assessed the extent to which these manual work-arounds position ICE to better track and manage costs across facilities or facility types and the extent to which additional controls are needed to address limitations in its methods for collecting and assessing detention costs, in accordance with federal internal control standards. Conducting these assessments could better position ICE to have more reliable data for tracking and managing costs across facility types.

GAO's analysis of ICE facility data showed that ICE primarily used three sets of detention standards, with the most recent and rigorous standards applied to 25 facilities housing about 54 percent of ICE's average daily population (ADP) as of January 2014. ICE plans to expand the use of these standards to 61 facilities housing 89 percent of total ADP by the end of fiscal year 2014; however, transition to these standards has been delayed by cost issues and contract negotiations and ICE does not have documentation for reasons why some facilities cannot be transitioned to the most recent standards in accordance with internal control standards. Documenting such reasons could provide an institutional record and help increase transparency and accountability in ICE's management of detention facilities.

GAO's analysis of ICE facility oversight programs showed that ICE applied more oversight mechanisms at facilities housing the majority of the ADP in fiscal year 2013. For example, 94 percent of detainees were housed in facilities that received an annual inspection. GAO's analysis of ICE's inspection reports showed that inspection results differed for 29 of 35 facilities inspected by both ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and Office of Detention Oversight (ODO) in fiscal year 2013. ICE officials stated that ODO and ERO have not discussed differences in inspection results and whether oversight mechanisms are functioning as intended. Assessing the reasons why inspection results differ, in accordance with internal control standards, could help ICE better ensure that inspection mechanisms are working as intended.

Why GAO Did This Study

DHS has reported that the number of noncitizens in immigration detention has increased from about 230,000 in fiscal year 2005 to about 440,600 in fiscal year 2013. ICE applies various sets of detention standards—such as medical services—at over 250 facilities owned by ICE or private contractors, or owned by or contracted to state and local governments. GAO was asked to examine differences in cost, standards, and oversight across types of facilities.

This report addresses the extent to which (1) ICE has processes to track costs, (2) standards vary across facility types and the reasons for any differences, and (3) oversight and the results of that oversight vary across facility types. GAO reviewed ICE data and information on costs, detention population, standards, and oversight for 166 facilities that held detainees for 72 hours or more, from fiscal years 2011 through 2013, reviewed facility contracts, and interviewed federal contractors and DHS and ICE officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that ICE assess the extent to which it has appropriate controls for tracking facility costs, document reasons why facilities cannot be transitioned to the most recent standards, and review reasons for differences in inspection results. DHS concurred with all recommendations but one to document reasons why facilities cannot be transitioned to the most recent standards because, among other reasons, DHS believes it already has sufficient documentation. As discussed in this report, GAO continues to believe in the need for such documentation.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2016, no additional information had been provided on the status of ICE efforts to address this recommendation. In February 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had created a spend plan tool to help track costs for each detention facility. In addition, DHS reported that ICE headquarters and field offices were coordinating to determine the resources needed to track and manage detention facilities costs. To fully address this recommendation, ICE should assess the extent to which the spend plan tool is an appropriate internal control for tracking and managing detention facilities costs and whether additional controls are necessary.

    Recommendation: To enhance ICE's ability to analyze and manage detention facility costs, ensure transparency and accountability in the management of detention facilities, and strengthen the oversight mechanisms that ensure detention facilities provide safe, secure, and humane confinement, the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should assess the extent to which ICE has appropriate internal controls for tracking and managing detention facility costs and develop additional controls as necessary.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2016, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported implementing a new process, the "Field Office Cost Optimization Review Process," that is to enable ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) headquarters to oversee ERO field office use of low-cost and guaranteed minimum beds when making detainee placement decisions. According to ICE, this new review process, which was finalized in March 2016 and implemented in April 2016, helps field offices choose, when appropriate, the least expensive facilities in a given area for placing detainees. In addition, the process is to provide ERO headquarters with a means for monitoring and analyzing the placement optimization rate for each ERO field office and to address any challenges or areas of concern when field offices are under utilizing low-cost detention facilities. To facilitate the tracking of field office placement decisions, ERO headquarters receives a monthly "facility cost optimization report" showing the extent to which each field office is utilizing low-cost and guaranteed minimum bed options when making detainee placement decisions. These actions should help ICE ensure that ERO field offices are choosing, when appropriate, the least expensive facilities in a given area for placing detainees. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To enhance ICE's ability to analyze and manage detention facility costs, ensure transparency and accountability in the management of detention facilities, and strengthen the oversight mechanisms that ensure detention facilities provide safe, secure, and humane confinement, the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should develop an oversight mechanism to ensure that field offices comply with guidance to appropriately consider costs in making detainee placement decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2014, we reported on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) oversight of immigration detention facilities (GAO-15-153). During the course of our review, we found that inspection results differed for 29 of 35 facilities inspected by both ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and Office of Detention Oversight (ODO) in Fiscal Year 2013 and that ERO and ODO had not discussed differences in inspection results and whether oversight mechanisms are functioning as intended. Consequently, we recommended that ICE review reasons for differences between ERO and ODO inspection results and assess the extent to which differences reflect broader issues with the inspection mechanisms themselves to help ensure the mechanisms are working as intended. In April 2016, ERO officials said they were working with ODO and ICE's Office of Detention, Policy, and Planning (ODPP) personnel to identify differences in inspection mechanisms. ERO officials reported that their ongoing joint review efforts resulted in modifications to the inspection procedures used by the ERO inspections contractor, to incorporate several ODO "best practices" and inspection methodologies, among other things. Specifically, in August 2015, an ICE working group developed training guidance for the ERO inspections contractor on how to inspect to 22 detention standards identified by the working group as the "most critical" standards (the standards were selected based on various reports, findings, complaints, and deficiencies reported by ERO, ODO, non-governmental organizations, and others). The working group also revised the checklist the inspections contractor uses in conjunction with the guidance. ICE also revised the ERO inspections contractor's statement of work (SOW) to include new requirements for conducting annual inspections of detention facilities that hold aliens for longer than 72 hours. For example, the SOW now requires, among other things, monthly meetings between ICE and the contractor to discuss performance; a qualitative description of the nature and conditions of a facility (i.e., the characterizations and subjective impressions of the livability and quality of life at the facility); "differentiation of results" such that inspections reflect the diverse spectrum of conditions prevalent at different facilities; and teams who are able to communicate with detainees, either through the efforts of bilingual inspectors, an interpreter, or professional telephonic interpretive service. Further, in the April 2016 inspections contract award, ICE added a requirement for the inspections contractor to have a health care professional--physician, registered nurse, physician's assistant, or nurse practitioner--and detainee rights expert on their review teams, to bring them more in alignment with ODO's review teams. ICE also reported that ERO was working with ODPP and ICE's Office of Acquisition Management to revise the inspections contractor SOW to require the contractor to inspect facilities for quality of medical care. In August 2016, the inspections contractor signed the revised SOW, which requires that each inspection team include a registered nurse who would assess the quality of care based on a Medical Evaluation Toolkit. These actions to ERO inspections procedures should help provide ICE with assurance that ERO detention inspection mechanisms are working as intended. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To enhance ICE's ability to analyze and manage detention facility costs, ensure transparency and accountability in the management of detention facilities, and strengthen the oversight mechanisms that ensure detention facilities provide safe, secure, and humane confinement, the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should review reasons for differences between ERO and ODO inspection results and assess the extent to which differences reflect broader issues with the inspection mechanisms themselves to help ensure the mechanisms are working as intended.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not concur with this recommendation. As of December 2016, no additional information had been provided on the status of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) efforts to address this recommendation. To fully address this recommendation, ICE should document the reasons detention facilities cannot be transition to the most recent national detention standards.

    Recommendation: To enhance ICE's ability to analyze and manage detention facility costs, ensure transparency and accountability in the management of detention facilities, and strengthen the oversight mechanisms that ensure detention facilities provide safe, secure, and humane confinement, the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should document the reasons facilities cannot be transitioned to the most recent standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2016, no additional information had been provided on the status of ICE efforts to address this recommendation. In October 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had issued a new "Receipt & Acceptance" policy applicable to all program offices and would assess if additional internal controls are required and implement any needed ones, as appropriate. In February 2015, DHS reported that ICE had not finalized an impact assessment of the new policy for fiscal year 2014 to determine if additional controls would be required. To fully address this recommendation, ICE should complete an impact assessment of the new policy to determine if additional controls are needed to ensure proper payment of facility detention invoices.

    Recommendation: To enhance ICE's ability to analyze and manage detention facility costs, ensure transparency and accountability in the management of detention facilities, and strengthen the oversight mechanisms that ensure detention facilities provide safe, secure, and humane confinement, the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should take additional steps to help ensure that personnel responsible for reviewing and paying facility detention invoices follow internal control procedures to ensure proper payments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement

 

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