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Immigrants Held Indefinitely Without a Hearing? Another Court Says No

Mass Incarceration
Mass Incarceration
Michael Tan,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project
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May 28, 2014

The more judges who scrutinize the United States’ broken immigration enforcement system, the more and more they’re yelling, “Stop.”

A federal district court in Massachusetts yesterday ordered the government to end its practice of putting immigrants in long-term lock up without ever providing them the basic due process of a bond hearing. As a result, immigrants in Massachusetts subjected to six months of mandatory imprisonment can now seek a hearing before an immigration judge to determine whether they should stay in jail or be allowed to go home to their families and communities.

The ruling in Reid v. Donelan puts the brakes on one of the most draconian and unforgiving aspects of our immigration enforcement system.

Mandatory detention laws enacted by Congress in 1996 require the authorities to hold a person in jail if the government decides to pursue a deportation case based on his past crimes. That’s the case even if the person’s crimes were minor and nonviolent – like shoplifting or marijuana possession – and took place more than a decade ago. And it doesn’t even matter if the person has since rehabilitated himself and become a model member of society. To make matters worse, the government insists that the immigrant’s detention is required for as long as it takes for his case to be decided – even if that process takes months or years. This requirement even applies if it’s clear that the immigrant’s going to win his case and be legally permitted to stay in the country.

Take the case of Alejandro Rodriguez, a Mexican national who has been in the United States since he was a baby. He was detained for more than three years without a meaningful hearing over his imprisonment. Prior to his detention, Rodriguez lived near his extended family in Los Angeles, working as a dental assistant to support his two U.S. citizen children. His claim against removal hinged on whether he could be deported for two non-violent convictions—joyriding when he was 19, and a misdemeanor drug possession when he was 24. Rodriguez was denied release by ICE on the basis of administrative file custody reviews in which ICE rejected his requests for release based entirely on a written questionnaire, without even interviewing him. After Rodriguez filed a habeas petition in district court—but before the petition was adjudicated—ICE released him on his own recognizance, revealing that the agency had never considered him a flight risk or danger to the community. He remained released on conditions of supervision without incident until he won his immigration case. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Fortunately, the courts are listening to Rodriguez and others like him. Yesterday’s ruling joins a chorus of federal courts holding that such long-term detention without a bond hearing is unlawful and builds upon the ACLU’s landmark victory in Rodriguez v. Robbins, a class action lawsuit that won bond hearings after six months for detainees throughout the Ninth Circuit last spring.

These courts recognize a basic principle: In America, no one should be held in long-term jail without a hearing to determine if he or she needs to be locked up in the first place. As the Obama administration completes its review of its immigration enforcement policies, it should adopt the rulings of Reid and Rodriguez nationwide and provide bond hearings to all immigrant detainees after no more than six months of detention.

Only a nationwide rule will ensure due process truly applies to all across America.

The plaintiffs in Reid are represented by the ACLU, ACLU of Massachusetts,the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization and WilmerHale.

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