PASADENA - In a federal appellate court in California today, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the government is violating the law and the court's prior rulings by incarcerating immigrants for years while they fight their immigration cases.
In November 2006, the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project and the Stanford Law School Immigrants' Rights Clinic filed lawsuits in federal district court on behalf of four immigrant men who were being held indefinitely in the Terminal Island Federal Detention Center in San Pedro, California, while they pursued legitimate legal challenges to their pending deportations. All four had been detained for prolonged periods of time and yet had never received a bond hearing to determine if their detentions were justified. Shortly after the lawsuits were filed, the district court ordered the government to provide the men with bond hearings. By February 2007, all four were released.
The government appealed the district court's decision in three of the four prolonged detention cases. Two of the ACLU's cases - involving the Reverend Raymond Soeoth and Amadou Lamine Diouf - were argued before the court today. In addition, two separate cases of immigrants Luis Felipe Casas-Castrillon and Manuel Prieto-Romero were argued today. Casas-Castrillo and Prieto-Romero have been illegally detained for six and three years respectively. The ACLU filed friend of the court briefs in those two cases.
'Locking people up for years without bond hearings is un-American,' said Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California who argued today on behalf of Diouf and Soeoth. 'The constitutional guarantee of due process applies to all persons in this country, not just to U.S. citizens. The government does not have unfettered authority to imprison people - without hearings - for as long as it takes to determine their cases.'
Diouf, one of the released detainees, initially came to the United States when he was 21 years old to study Information Systems at Cal State Northridge. After he graduated, he overstayed his student visa because he became involved with, and subsequently married, his present wife.
Although he is eligible to become a lawful permanent resident based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen, the government detained him after his former immigration attorney failed to file important legal papers on time. His attorney acknowledged his error, but the government refused to release Diouf or to provide him with a bond hearing while he fought his case. Diouf had been incarcerated for almost two years before he was finally provided with a hearing before an immigration judge who ordered his release.
'I was separated from my wife and career for almost two years because of an innocent mistake in the filing of my immigration papers,' said Diouf. 'I'm not a danger to society. All I want is to be with my wife and get a job.'
Soeoth, the other released detainee whose case is being argued today, is a Christian who fled Indonesia with his wife in 1999 to escape persecution for practicing his faith. He was initially allowed to work in the United States while applying for asylum and eventually became the assistant minister for a church. However, when his asylum application was denied in 2004, the government arrested him at his home and took him into detention.
For the next two and a half years the government refused to consider his release, even though he filed a motion to reopen his asylum case on the grounds that his new role as a pastor placed him at increased risk of persecution in Indonesia, and even though the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stopped his deportation to allow him to pursue his case. Soeoth was imprisoned for two and a half years before he was finally ordered released on bond by an immigration judge last February.
"This has been very hard for my wife and for my parish," said Soeoth. 'I can't understand why in America I must choose between two evils: going back to Indonesia to face persecution or being detained while I fight for asylum.'
Although neither Diouf nor Soeoth is a danger to society or a flight risk, the government claims they never should have been released on bond and should go back into detention until their cases are decided, regardless of how long this may take.
'The government's detention policy is not only unlawful and inhumane, it is also irrational," said Judy Rabinovitz, senior staff counsel with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, who is also arguing before the court today. "The government is spending millions of dollars locking up people whose detention serves no purpose. These individuals are ready to comply with conditions of supervision and even electronic monitoring if necessary. There is no reason for them to be locked up for years while their cases make their way through the courts.'
Over the past few years, the ACLU has filed multiple lawsuits on behalf of individual immigrants who have been held for prolonged periods of time while fighting their immigration cases, winning the release of more than a dozen individuals who were being unlawfully detained.
Today's cases are being argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Lawyers on the case include Rabinovitz and Cecillia D. Wang of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, Arulanantham and Ranjana Natarajan of the ACLU of Southern California, and Jayashri Srikantiah of the Stanford Law School Immigrants' Rights Clinic.
Click here for more information on the lawsuits, Soeoth v. Mukasey, Mukasey v. Diouf, Casas-Castrillon v. Lockyer, and Prieto-Romero v. Clark