SEATTLE – A federal court today held that immigration judges in Washington state must consider releasing detained immigrants on conditions of supervision instead of requiring a money bond.
Federal District Judge Robert Lasnik of the Western District of Washington rejected the immigration courts' longstanding policy of requiring that immigrants pay at least a minimum $1,500 bond in order to secure release, even though the immigration laws clearly authorize immigration judges to order release on "conditional parole." The result of this policy was that low-income and indigent immigrants were stuck in detention, solely because of their poverty.
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, American Civil Liberties Union, and ACLU of Washington brought the case on behalf of Maria Sandra Rivera, a Honduran woman who fled to the U.S. to escape persecution, and class members. She was detained when she first entered the country, and sought to apply for political asylum in removal proceedings. The Immigration and Nationality Act allows for people in removal proceedings to ask for a custody hearing so that immigration judges may consider whether they may be released pending proceedings that can drag on for months, and sometimes years.
Rivera asked for a custody hearing and explained that she did not have any money to pay a bond. However, the immigration judge told her he did not have authority to order her released on conditions and instead ordered a $3,500 bond. She remained unnecessarily locked up for five months until she was granted political asylum and released. While detained, she brought this challenge on behalf of herself and other people in immigration custody who are denied the opportunity to have a judge determine whether they qualify for release without paying a money bond.
“I really suffered being locked up for five months, just because I did not have the money to pay the bond,” she said. “I am glad that now immigration judges will determine whether a person should be released, even if they cannot afford a bond.”
The judge granted class certification and summary judgment on behalf of immigrant detainees appearing in immigration court in Washington. He ruled that the controlling statute "unambiguously states that an immigration judge may consider conditions for release beyond a monetary bond,” and found that the agency’s policy and practice of refusing such requests violates the law.
"The court’s order rejects an unlawful practice that the government has had in place for more than fifteen years," said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. "People should not be locked up while they are in immigration proceedings simply because they do not have money to pay a bond."
The court also ordered the parties to propose a plan to provide new hearings for class members who were already denied release at a bond hearing under the government’s prior “bond-only” policy.
"No one should be locked up because they don’t have the money to buy their freedom, but this is the plight of countless men and women currently imprisoned in our immigration detention system," said Michael Tan, staff attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "This ruling should help put an end to such practices in Washington, and serves as a model for the rest of the country."
“This is a matter of fundamental fairness. People should never be treated unequally by our legal system because they lack financial means,” said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington.