While Congress wrestles with what to do about illegal immigration, a federal appellate court in California has ruled that those suspected of being in the country illegally cannot be held in jail indefinitely without a hearing.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upholds a lower-court decision that detainees are entitled to one of the most fundamental rights in the United States, having one’s day in court. It extends the ruling by U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter in September 2012, which applied to the Los Angeles area, to California and eight Western states, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The government has six months to provide a hearing to immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings that establishes they are a flight risk or a societal danger, or it must let them go, the appellate court ruled. A judge can still require that immigrants released under these conditions be electronically monitored or otherwise supervised while free.
The case grew out of a class-action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others on behalf of hundreds of immigrants in California who have been jailed for longer than six months. Around 429,000 immigrants, at a cost of $2 billion, were detained in 2011, according to the ACLU. Around 25% of immigrant detainees are under jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit court.
The court rejected the government’s claim that the detentions were necessary to safeguard the public. “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 wrote for the panel.
The ACLU detailed the case of one detainee, Byron Merida, who spent more than three years in jail without a hearing. Merida has lived in the U.S. for decades and started several successful businesses. All the members of his immediate family are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. He was arrested for a non-violent crime and held without bond while deportation proceedings against him were started.
The courts began providing hearings for Southern California detainees after Hatter’s ruling last year, and immigration judges have already released two-thirds of them. It appears not to have generated a mass outbreak of immigrant-generated crime.