Editorial: For detained immigrants, a too-long wait for justice


Comprehensive immigration reform is probably dead for yet another year, the victim — once again — of a dysfunctional Congress that can’t even reach agreement on the things it agrees on. There is nothing President Obama can do about that, although if therapy were available for political relationships, there’d be a referral waiting to be made.

In the meantime, the president still has to administer immigration laws as they exist, and he reportedly is considering dropping his opposition to bond hearings for detained undocumented immigrants. That would be a smart move; indeed, courts in California and Massachusetts have already ordered just that for detainees held more than six months.

Elsewhere, immigrants who are accused of entering the country illegally are currently kept in federal detention facilities until an immigration judge can rule on whether they should be deported. The system is swamped, and detainees spend an unconscionable amount of time waiting for court dates, at a cost to the taxpayers of $159 per detainee per day, according to the National Immigration Forum. An American Civil Liberties Union-commissioned analysis of 1,000 people detained for at least six months found they spent an average of 404 days — more than 13 months — in custody. Length of time varied: 86 detainees were held for more than two years; one was held for 1,585 days, or more than four years.


This is an embarrassment in a nation that prides itself on its adherence to the rule of law. Speeding up the process seems to be beyond the government’s staffing and budget capabilities, but those accused of coming to the U.S. illegally don’t deserve indefinite incarceration. Besides, even if the government drops its opposition to bond hearings, detainees would still not receive the same treatment as accused criminals, who don’t have to wait six months to be offered a chance for bail.

If a court case can’t be heard in a reasonable amount of time — and six months seems a more than reasonable amount of time to hold a person who has been accused but not convicted — then the detainee ought to be given a bond hearing in which a judge determines whether he poses a flight risk or threat to public safety. If he does not, he should be released under supervision, including an ankle bracelet if prudent. The ACLU says that of 1,262 detainees who have since had bond hearings, 871 were ruled eligible (which suggests how many nonviolent immigrants are being jailed).

Forcing people to wait for hundreds of days in detention centers before having their day in court is manifestly unfair, unnecessarily costly and unwise.