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New Bill Proposes to Lock Up Immigrants Forever

Ahilan Arulanantham,
Senior Counsel,
ACLU of Southern California
Michael Tan,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project
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May 24, 2011

Reverend Raymond Soeoth is a Christian minister who fled Indonesia with his wife after suffering persecution for their faith. When his asylum application was denied in 2004, the U.S. government put Reverend Soeoth in immigration detention. Even though he posed no danger or flight risk and had never been convicted of any crime, he spent over 2 ½ years in detention while the courts decided whether to reconsider his asylum claim. During that time, he never received a bond hearing to determine whether his detention was justified.

For years, Reverend Soeoth was separated from his wife and congregation. His wife was forced to shutter the corner store they ran together — all because our government would not give him a 15-minute bond hearing. In February 2007, after the ACLU filed suit, a federal court ordered a bond hearing for Reverend Soeoth, where it was determined he was neither a flight risk nor a threat to his community, so he was finally ordered released. He will likely be granted asylum.

Today the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement held a hearing on “H.R. 1932, Keep Our Communities Safe Act of 2011,” new legislation that would result in incarcerating even more people like Reverend Soeoth who pose no danger to anyone.

The purpose of immigration detention is to ensure that immigrants appear for their deportation hearings and, if they lose, their removal. Immigration detention is not meant to punish people for crimes. Indeed, more than half of the people in immigration detention have never been convicted of a crime at all. But the sad reality is DHS detains more than 33,000 people on any given day, for months or years. Thousands of these people present no flight risk or danger to the community, or whose deportation is unlikely. Reverend Soeoth is one of these thousands.

This detention comes at great cost to taxpayers: $45,000 per detainee per year, for a total of $1.9 billion in this fiscal year, with $100 million more than that requested in the fiscal year 2012 budget. H.R. 1932 proposes to detain even more people unnecessarily.

H.R. 1932 makes a bad situation worse by making two crucial changes to current immigration law: First, it authorizes DHS to detain individuals like Reverend Soeoth for months or years while they await the outcome of their cases, and simultaneously denies them a prompt bond hearing before an immigration judge. Second, H.R. 1932 authorizes DHS to indefinitely lock up people who have lost their cases — potentially for a lifetime — even in cases when the government cannot deport them (e.g. because the person is stateless, or because we have no repatriation agreement with the home country).

These changes are unconstitutional. First, due process requires that prolonged detention be accompanied by the basic protection of a bond hearing. Second, the Supreme Court held nearly a decade ago that detaining someone whose immigration status is in limbo indefinitely because the government cannot deport them raises serious due process concerns. But under H.R. 1932, these basic safeguards would be undermined, subjecting thousands of people to permanent incarceration without trial.

Moreover, the government already has adequate tools to deal with the rare cases of truly dangerous individuals who cannot be deported. Our criminal justice system and civil commitment system — which applies to people who are mentally ill and dangerous, including sex offenders — are enough to protect public safety.

H.R. 1932 is scarcely necessary to make our country safe — in fact, it does the opposite. We are not a repressive state that locks up people like Reverend Soeoth for years while denying them fair process. Congress should reject this fundamentally un-American proposal.

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