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Law & the Courts

SCOTUS Rules Feds Can Detain Alien Convicts Indefinitely without Hearing

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., June 11, 2018 (Erin Schaff/Reuters)

The Supreme Court handed the Trump administration a win Tuesday, ruling that the federal government can detain immigrants with years-old criminal records indefinitely without a bond hearing.

The case concerned the government’s power to detain noncitizens who have been convicted of crimes that make them deportable, served their sentences, and been released. The plaintiffs, noncitizens who joined class-action suits against the government filed in California and Washington, argued that the law required the government to immediately detain such convicts upon their release at the end of their sentences, at which point they would be held while an immigration court decided their cases. But the Court disagreed.

The 5–4 decision, which fell along the Court’s established ideological fault lines, overturned a 9th Circuit ruling that immigrants with criminal records may request a bond hearing if they are arrested by immigration authorities long after their release from detention.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, making the textual argument that “neither the statute’s text nor its structure” supported the interpretation that immigration authorities must act quickly in arresting a criminal alien after his release. The statute in question states that the government can detain convicted immigrants “when the alien is released,” but does not specify a time frame.

Alito called “especially hard to swallow” the plaintiffs’ argument that such immigrants must be detained a mere 24 hours after their release from criminal detention.

Justice Stephen Breyer read his dissent from the bench, warning that the majority’s decision grants the government extraordinary power. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor also voted against the decision.

“It runs the gravest risk of depriving those whom the Government has detained of one of the oldest and most important of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms: the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law,” Breyer wrote.

“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,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Cecilia Wang.

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