ACLU Says Homeland Security Department Move to Cut Legal Ties On Detention With Ashcroft an "Important First Step"

April 13, 2004 12:00 am

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ACLU Says Homeland Security Department Move to Cut Legal Ties On Detention With Ashcroft an “Important First Step”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Media@dcaclu.org

WASHINGTON – In response to an internal Justice Department report citing various physical and legal abuses of immigrants held in secret after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security today released new guidelines requiring independent review of other agencies’ legal representations and case-by-case review of closed hearings and bond recommendations and decisions.

“The Homeland Security Department’s policy announcement stands in marked contrast to the triumphalism of the Ashcroft Justice Department, which despite criticisms from its own internal watchdog, still makes no apologies for the wholesale detention of Arab and Muslim immigrants,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director. “The Homeland Security Department is showing itself more willing to accept the reality that the war on terror does not have to be a war on immigrants and that we can be both safe and free.”

The new Homeland Security Department guidelines were promulgated today by Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson largely in response to two reports released publicly in June and December 2003 by the Justice Department’s watchdog agency, the office of the Inspector General.

The June report revealed a pattern of quasi-official policy at the Justice Department that denied bail and lawyers to hundreds of Arab and Muslim men rounded up after 9/11, none of whom were later found to have any connection to the attacks. The December report showed a pattern of physical abuse at certain detention centers by certain federal Bureau of Prison guards. Both reports were prepared after intense lobbying by the ACLU and other advocacy groups.

The new DHS guidelines require department lawyers to make their own legal decisions about certain immigration practices — for instance not taking the FBI’s word before denying bond or clearance to particular non-citizens. They will also implement a system where the closing of immigration hearings to the press and public, bond decisions and other procedural steps will be taken only on a case-by-case basis – in contrast to the blanket approach closed hearing ban adopted by the Justice Department after 9/11.

The guidelines also reiterate the rule that immigrants must be notified of charges within 48 hours of filing, and be given a notice to appear with 72 hours. A more senior level official is now required to sign off on exceptions to this policy.

While welcoming the new DHS rules, the ACLU said that the agency needed to take additional steps to protect due process, including guaranteeing access to counsel for individuals facing deportation.

The policy shift comes two years after a decision by Attorney General John Ashcroft directed immigration judges to uniformly close special deportation proceedings to the public and the press. In some cases, the existence of these hearings was not even mentioned on the docket. This practice was abandoned recently to forestall a Supreme Court challenge brought by the ACLU.

“When we argued against these closed hearings in federal court, the judge said, ‘democracy dies behind closed doors,'” Romero added. “The Homeland Security Department appears to have heeded that remark, and the ACLU will continue to monitor its policies and practices to ensure that the door does not slam shut on immigrants again.”

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