Panel rules immigrants in S. Calif. can’t be held indefinitely

An immigration official takes a suspect into custody.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Immigrants detained in Southern California for possible deportation must be given a hearing within six months to determine whether they should be released, a federal appeals court decided Tuesday.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s order requiring the federal government to provide hearings to immigrants who are incarcerated in Southern California, including those arrested while entering the country or those with a criminal history.

“Contrary to the government’s rhetoric, this injunction will not flood our streets with fearsome criminals seeking to escape the force of American immigration law,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, an appointee of former President Clinton, wrote for the panel.


The ruling stemmed from a class action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of immigrants in Southern California who have been held by the federal government for longer than six months.

A district judge ordered the government to give the immigrants hearings and release those who posed no risks to society and were not likely to flee.

Immigrants released this way have to post a bond and are subject to government supervision, including possible electronic monitoring, until an immigration judge determines their fate.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency appealed the district court order, arguing that it would impose administrative burdens.

But the 9th circuit said it was needed to ensure immigrants, some of whom may eventually win the right to remain in the U.S., were not needlessly detained.

“The district court’s narrowly tailored order provides individuals, whose right to be present in the United States remains to be decided, a hearing where a neutral decision-maker can determine whether they might deserve conditional release from the prison-like setting where they might otherwise languish for months or years on end,” Wardlaw wrote.

The government began complying with the court order in mid-November while the case was on appeal. The 9th circuit said that two-thirds of about 400 immigrants who received such hearings have been released on bond as a result.

More than 429,000 immigrants were detained for possible deportation nationally in 2011, about 2,000 of them in Los Angeles, the court said.

“The 9th Circuit’s decision clearly rejects the government’s draconian practice of imprisoning immigrants for prolonged periods without meaningful review,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and senior attorney at ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, one of the groups representing the immigrants.

“The ruling will ensure that the government does not waste resources detaining people -- including many lawful residents -- for months and years when they present no risk to public safety.”


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