Federal Appeals Court Says INS Must Free Indefinitely Detained Immigrants

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
April 10, 2000 12:00 am

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SEATTLE — Immigration officials cannot continue to jail immigrants indefinitely after their prison sentences expire, a unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today.

“Today’s ruling marks a victory for 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.

“This is the first circuit to grapple with the issue of whether congress actually authorized the INS’s policy of indefinite detention,” Rabinovitz said. “In light of the Ninth Circuit’s decisions, we are hopeful that other courts, as well as the INS, will rethink their position.”

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 had argued that the 1996 law does not, in fact, give the INS such powers; today the appeals court panel agreed.

“It doesn’t make sense to lock people up for life because their countries won’t take them back,” said Jayashri Srikantiah, the attorney who argued the earlier district court case for the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project. “As the Court noted, there are other ways to address the government’s legitimate concerns that don’t require locking people up for life.”

The court’s decision could affect thousands of immigrants currently detained because they cannot be sent to their home countries.

“Where it is reasonably likely that an alien who has entered the United States cannot be removed in the reasonably foreseeable future, detention beyond the (90-day) removal period is not justified,” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt in his unanimous opinion.

The ruling came in the case of Kim Ho Ma, a refugee who left Cambodia at the age of two, who challenged the indefinite detention policies. Ma is a longtime permanent resident with family and other close ties in the United States.

The twist for Ma and four other immigrants who orignially filed complaints is that their native countries have refused to allow them back. 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.

Arguing that an interpretation of immigration law authorizing indefinite detention in the absence of a repatriation agreement might violate international law as well, the court clearly stated “the INS may not detain Ma any longer.”

The five immigrants who challenged 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.

The Ninth Circuit panel’s decision in the case, Ma v. Reno, is available online at: http://www.ce9.uscourts.gov.

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