Federal Appeals Court to Consider Whether Government Can Detain Undeportable Immigrants for Life

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
February 14, 2000 12:00 am

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SEATTLE — In a case being closely watched around the nation, a federal appeals court will today consider whether the government can indefinitely detain thousands of immigrants — many for as long as the rest of their lives.

“This case raises important questions about fundamental fairness in America,” said Judy Rabinovitz, Senior Staff Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants Rights Project, which has coordinated efforts around the country to overturn indefinite detention. “Even the government concedes that if these individuals were citizens they could not be detained.”

Today’s oral arguments before a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals arises from an important lower court decision that found that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is violating the constitutional rights of five immigrants by imprisoning them indefinitely while it seeks to have them deported.

Each of the five immigrants in the case here are longtime permanent residents with family and other close ties in the United States. Each of them has run afoul of the criminal justice system and have therefore been ordered deported by the INS — even though they have served their (often minimal) criminal sentences.

The twist for the five immigrants in today’s case — and thousands of others like them around the United States — is that their native countries have refused to allow them back. Countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Cuba either do not have diplomatic relations with the United States or for other reasons refuse to accept their repatriated citizens.

Under harsh anti-immigrant legislation adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, the INS has argued that it is permitted to detain — often for far longer than their original criminal sentence — such immigrants.

The ACLU and other immigrants’ rights advocates strongly disagree, arguing that the 1996 law does not, in fact, give the INS such powers. “Even if Congress had permitted the INS to indefinitely detain deportable immigrants,” said Jayashri Srikantiah, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project, “the practice must be overturned as an unconstitutional denial of due process under the law.”

The five immigrants challenging the INS policies in Seattle are represented by Jay Stansell and Jennifer Wellman of the Federal Public Defenders Office. Dozens of organizations filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, arguing that the five should be released from their indefinite detention and that the law should be overturned as unconstitutional.

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