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ACLU Adds Somali Refugees to Lawsuit Seeking Legal Counsel and Timely Release Hearings

Ahilan Arulanantham,
Senior Counsel,
ACLU of Southern California
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September 14, 2010

Nearly two years after President Obama’s election, Somali refugee Yussuf Abdikadir could be forgiven for being skeptical about the president’s campaign motto, “Change You Can Believe In.”

After facing severe persecution as a child in Somalia and later as an undocumented Somali refugee in Kenya (birthplace of Barack Obama Sr., the president’s father), Mr. Abdikadir fled to the United States to seek asylum. But federal authorities have incarcerated him in an immigration prison outside of Los Angeles while the overburdened immigration courts slowly resolve his asylum case. He has now been incarcerated for six months, but he has not received a hearing on whether he can be released.

Today, the ACLU of Southern California added Mr. Abdilkadir and five other immigrants to its class action lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court. The case, Rodriguez v. Hayes, challenges the U.S. government’s right to detain immigrants for months and even years while they await the outcome of immigration proceedings. Plaintiffs in the suit are six men from Somalia, El Salvador, and Mexico, each incarcerated in Southern California for more than six months without having received a detention hearing, in violation of due process and the Immigration and Nationality Act.

These men’s stories are all too familiar. Every day in the Los Angeles area alone there are more than 300 immigrants who have been detained for more than six months without even a release hearing. Thousands of immigrants across the nation face a similar fate. Many of them never have been convicted of any crime, and each of them has finished serving any sentence he or she may have had. But the U.S. government continues to maintain that our immigration laws do not permit these detainees the benefit of release hearings. Nor are they entitled to appointed counsel notwithstanding the significant deprivation of liberty they suffer.

This draconian policy affects not only refugees like Mr. Abdikadir, but also lawful permanent residents who have lived here nearly their whole lives. Jose Farias Cornejo is another victim of the immigration detention system. He was brought to the United States prior to his first birthday, the child of migrant farm workers. He considers himself an American — he speaks perfect English, finished school in Los Angeles, and has never known any other country. Like other Americans, though, he had substance abuse problems that led to legal problems. He was convicted of two minor crimes, including a drug offense for which a criminal court judge sentenced him to a few months in jail. But because he isn’t an American citizen, immigration authorities arrested him after his sentence was over and now want to take away his green card and deport him for that same crime. Although he will almost certainly win his immigration case because he is eligible for relief to remain here despite the conviction, it has already taken nearly a year to complete his case, during which time he has sat in immigration prison without ever receiving a bond hearing that would determine his eligibility to be released on bail while his case is pending.

As stories like this show, the U.S. immigration detention system has become a national disgrace. Nowhere else do we imprison people for so long — often for years — without lawyers or even hearings to determine if imprisonment is really necessary. This broken system inflicts a heavy cost not just to the detainees who languish in the system, but also to their families, and ultimately to the American taxpayer, who has to pay for the cost of imprisoning thousands of people for no reason. Surely the time to change this system has come.