Oct. 6, 2009 -- Illegal immigrants captured inside the U.S. or along the borders may soon be sent to a detention facility less like a prison and more like a hotel or dormitory.
Under the plan announced Tuesday by Assistant Secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton, captured undocumented immigrants will be classified "right up front," based on security risk and medical condition, and placed in detention facilities accordingly. Violent criminals will be separated from those seeking asylum or requiring medical attention.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the agency is looking to convert former hotels, nursing homes and other sites to hold nonviolent, noncriminal detainees in an effort to cut costs and "meet basic standards of safety and security."
Last year, ICE detained 378,000 illegal immigrants, who occupied approximately 33,000 beds in ICE facilities during any given month. The cost of detaining immigrants reached nearly $2 billion in 2008.
"There is a big difference between running a detention center for ICE and a state prison system," Napolitano said. The current detention system -- with more than 300 facilities nationwide -- holds a broad mix of individuals, including families with small children, awaiting deportation or a court hearing on their immigration status.
The department recently removed families from the T. Don Hutto detention center – a former prison in central Texas – changing the center to an all-female facility. The move saves the government $900,000 a month, according to Napolitano.
Morton called the new policies, which include an effort to double the number of ICE workers monitoring conditions at detention facilities, "far reaching." He said it would take time to implement them fully.
"We'll do what it takes to make steady, constant improvement to the nation's detention system," he said.
Immigration Groups Respond Cautiously, Favorably
"These [reforms] may very well be an enormous step forward," said Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center. "The challenge now is how to implement them and how quickly to implement them."
Tumlin told ABC News the current immigration detention system was designed and built to hold criminal detainees. "Everything from bricks and mortar to how programs are run inside the facilities are oriented toward violent criminals," she said. "But the majority of undocumented immigrants are not violent criminals."
The National Immigration Law Center says it is also concerned that the new standards are not legally enforceable. "If the new rules are violated," said Tumlin, "the detainee has no right of redress... We have not seen anything to change that."
Napolitano said the administration expects to have an "increase – potentially – of detainees" in the future as it continues "unabated to make sure our laws are followed."
Among the other reforms Napolitano announced Tuesday is a new "online locator system" to find detainees in ICE custody. Many lawyers and family members of detained illegal immigrants have long decried the current system as amounting to a "black hole" in which it's difficult to obtain information about the detained.
Napolitano and Morton also say their agencies plan to move detention facilities closer to urban areas to allow family members easier access to detainees -- and allow detainees better access to immigration service providers and pro bono legal counsel.
Undocumented residents are "entitled to have an attorney" during the detention and deportation process but "not at the government's expense," Morton said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.