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Verdicts & Settlements

Supreme Court Says Government Can ‘Indefinitely’ Detain Some Legal Immigrants

— March 20, 2019

A narrow win for the Trump administration, the ruling lets federal officials deport immigrants who’ve served criminal sentences in the distant past.

The U.S. Supreme Court handed the Trump administration another victory on Tuesday, narrowly ruling that the government can indefinitely detain legal immigrants who’ve served and completed criminal sentences.

National Public Radio reports that the 5-4 decision was split along partisan lines. The verdict reverses an earlier ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and has been regarded as a success for the Trump administration and its draconian immigration policies.

In line with Obama-era arguments, the Justice Department had argued that the government can pick up and detain immigrants for deportation at any time. More importantly, the justices decided that there’s no obligation for deportation orders to be served and carried out immediately after a criminal sentence has been served.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said immigration law requires that “deportable criminal aliens” be detained, even if their trials and terms of incarceration were completed years earlier.

A 2014 image of Donald Trump. President Trump has continued to make immigration a central platform for his presidency. Image from Flickr via Wikimedia Commons/user:Gage Skidmore. (CCA-BY-2.0).

Alito, notes NPR, said that it is “especially hard to swallow” the notion that “the alien must be arrested on the day he walks out of jail.”

“As we have held time and time again, an official’s duties are better carried out late than never,” Alito said.

Alito and the majority’s opinion was contested by the Supreme Court’s comparatively liberal wing. Justice Stephen Breyer said the ruling gives the government too much power.

According to NPR, Justice Breyer believes extant legislation is clear-cut: the government cannot detain immigrants without a bail or hearing unless they’ve just been released from criminal custody.

“In deciphering the intent of the Congress that wrote this statute, we must decide—in the face of what is, at worst, linguistic ambiguity—whether Congress intended that persons who have long since paid their debt to society would be deprived of their liberty for months or years without the possibility of bail,” Breyer wrote, later reading sections of his opinion out loud to underscore the minority’s rationale for dissent.

“We cannot decide that question without bearing in mind basic American legal values: the Government’s duty not to deprive any ‘person’ of ‘liberty’ without ‘due process of law’,” Breyer added.

The Tuesday decision complements another immigration-related ruling issued last February. In that case, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority similarly overrode liberal dissent, finding that immigrants held in long-term detention and awaiting deportation proceedings are ineligible to petition for release.

Not surprisingly, both decisions drew heavy criticism from immigration advocates and civil rights activists.

Reuters reports that the American Civil Liberties Union condemned the judgment, with ACLU attorney Cecilia Wang saying that in both cases “the Supreme Court has endorsed the most extreme interpretation of immigration detention statutes, allowing mass incarceration of people without any hearing, simply because they are defending themselves against a deportation charge.”

Wang said the ACLU is “looking into follow-up litigation along various avenues.”


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