High Court: INS Cannot Indefinitely Jail Immigrants

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot continue to jail immigrants awaiting deportation whose home countries either will not accept them or no longer exist. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had argued it is permitted to imprison people indefinitely under a 1996 law requiring the deportation of non-citizens convicted of a range of felonies -- even if no other country will accept them after their prison term is over. The ACLU Immigrant Rights Project and the ACLU-WA submitted an amicus brief in the case arguing that keeping immigrants behind bars after they have completed their sentence -- potentially for the rest of their lives -- is not authorized by statute and violates due process rights.

"The court's decision is a profound reminder that the constitutional right to freedom from detention applies to citizens and noncitizens alike," said Jayashri Srikantiah, one of the attorneys who wrote the ACLU's brief.

The ruling stemmed from cases in Virginia and Washington. The latter case involved Kim Ho Ma, a legal resident of the U.S who had left Cambodia with his family when he was two but did not become a citizen. Ma had served just over two years in prison on a state felony conviction and nearly three more in the custody of the INS. Cambodia, along with other countries including Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba, has no repatriation agreement with the U.S. Until Ma filed suit, the INS claimed the right to imprison him indefinitely.

There are at least 120 people in Washington and more than 3,000 nationally in similar situations: noncitizens -- often legal permanent residents -- most of whom came into INS custody after completing sentences for criminal convictions. The ACLU contends that the government's concerns about public safety from releasing convicted felons can be addressed through setting supervised conditions of release, rather than by locking people up for life.

The ACLU is pressing for adoption by Congress of the Immigrant Fairness Restoration Act, a measure that would further reform INS detention practices for all immigrants.

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