In Second Victory for Immigrants' Rights, High Court Says INS Cannot Indefinitely Jail Immigrants

June 28, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–On the final day of its term, the Supreme Court brought more good news to immigrants when it ruled that the government cannot continue to imprison deportable immigrants whose home countries either will not accept them or no longer exist.

The vote was 5-4, the same margin by which the court ruled Monday that legal residents are entitled to have their cases reviewed by a court before facing deportation and that new deportation rules could not be applied retroactively.

“”Today’s ruling casts doubt on all sorts of INS detention practices and gives hope to thousands of immigrants and legal residents,”” 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.

Under harsh anti-immigrant legislation adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had argued that it is permitted to indefinitely imprison immigrants.

The ACLU and other immigrants’ rights advocates had argued that the 1996 law does not, in fact, give the INS such powers; today, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court agreed in Zadvydas, Kestutis v. Underdown, Lynne, et al., No. 99-7791 and Reno et al. v. Ma, Kim Ho, No. 00-0038.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer, said, “”Freedom from imprisonment — from government custody, detention, or other forms of physical restraint — lies at the heart of the liberty that [the Constitution] protects.””

“”The serious constitutional problem arising out of a statute that, in these circumstances, permits an indefinite, perhaps permanent, deprivation of human liberty without any such protection is obvious,”” Justice Breyer wrote.

Rabinovitz said there are at least 120 people in Washington state, where the Ma case arose, and more than 3,000 nationally who are in similar situations: non-citizens — often legal permanent residents — most of whom came into custody of the INS after completing sentences for criminal convictions.

The two immigrants in today’s cases 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 criminal sentences.

“The court’s decision is a profound reminder that the constitutional right to freedom from detention applies to citizens and non-citizens alike,””said Jayashri Srikantiah, an ACLU attorney who argued the Ma case in district court.

“”It doesn’t make sense to lock people up for life because their countries won’t take them back,”” she added. “”As the Court today noted, there are other ways to address the government’s legitimate concerns that don’t require locking people up for life, such as supervised release.””

Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project who argued the judicial review cases decided on Monday, said that both today’s and Monday’s rulings demonstrate that “”the courts must continue to act as a critical safeguard when Congress and the INS seek to limit liberty.””

Guttentag said that today’s ruling concerning indefinite detention also suggests that the Court frowns upon the INS practice of jailing immigrants who await a court hearing in other sorts of cases.

“”These decisions send an unmistakable message to Congress that it went too far in 1996 and change the legal landscape under which all of the 1996 laws will be tested,”” said Guttentag. “”Congress should now heed the court’s message and repeal the remainder of the 1996 laws that compel the detention and deportation of immigrants who have committed minor crimes, who pose no threat to society and whose children and spouses are United States citizens.””

The ACLU said that despite today’s victory, legislation endorsed by a vast array of civil rights, religious, immigrants’ rights and labor organizations is still necessary. The legislation, the Immigrant Fairness Restoration Act of 2001, would, among other things, further reform INS detention practices for all immigrants and make sure that immigration laws do not change the rules in the middle of the game.

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