Giving immigrant detainees a break
U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. last week ordered the Obama administration to provide bail hearings for certain immigrants who have been detained in Southern California for more than six months to determine whether their continued detention is warranted. Hatter’s decision is a welcome development that could help restore some much-needed fairness to the troubled detention system. We hope the administration accepts the court’s ruling.
Clearly the federal government has the authority to detain and deport immigrants who violate the law, but it also has a responsibility to ensure that those immigrants are not subject to excessive, prolonged incarceration; they deserve the opportunity to be considered for bail. The problem is that as the U.S. moves to detain record numbers of immigrants, the judicial review that used to be provided to those immigrants has decreased. Unlike criminal defendants who are guaranteed a bail hearing before a judge within days, detainees fighting to remain in the U.S. are not guaranteed a similar hearing before an immigration judge.
Some critics will undoubtedly argue that Hatter’s ruling undermines a rigid 1996 law’s no-bail provision, under which federal authorities must detain asylum-seekers who arrive at the border and immigrants who have committed certain crimes, including minor drug offenses, while their deportation cases are pending. Such claims are specious. The 1996 law covered only brief detention; the new court ruling, by contrast, guarantees a bond hearing to immigrants who have spent more than six months locked up. Moreover, immigration judges can still refuse to release anyone they believe poses a threat to the community or is considered a flight risk. And immigration authorities can require anyone released to wear an electronic ankle monitor to ensure that he or she shows up to court.
What Hatter’s decision will do is establish a safeguard to prevent immigrants from languishing in detention unfairly and indefinitely. Consider the case of Alejandro Rodriguez, a legal permanent resident who spent three years in detention fighting his deportation. During that time he never received a bail hearing. He was eventually released after civil rights groups sued the government, and he has since won his deportation case.
The Obama administration has vowed to make the immigration detention system more humane and less punitive. We hope federal officials seize this opportunity to fulfill that promise.
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