SCOTUS takes up bid to end indefinite detention of immigrants

Pueblo Sin Fronteras drive-by protest ICE at Otay Mesa Detention Center
A general view of Pod F at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, a ICE (Immigrations & Customs Enforcement) federal detention c in San Diego, California, April 11, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan
  • Court will decide if detainees entitled to argue for release
  • Immigrants can be detained for years amid deportation proceedings
  • Liberal justices seemed frustrated with government's claims

(Reuters) - Justices from the U.S. Supreme Court's liberal wing on Tuesday hammered government lawyers' claims that immigrants facing deportation can be held in long-term detention with no opportunity to argue for their release while their cases are pending.

During oral arguments in two cases, lawyers from the U.S. solicitor general's office contended that individuals seeking to stave off deportation are not entitled to hearings on whether they should be released on bond.

The court's liberal minority seemed unconvinced, with the justices at times sounding frustrated with the lawyers' arguments. Justice Stephen Breyer said potentially detaining individuals for years when they have not even been accused of crimes went against fundamental principles of due process that have existed for centuries.

“You think that’s not in the Constitution? The 8th Amendment? Liberty? I mean, please,” Breyer said. “Why in heaven’s name shouldn’t you read that in here?”

Reuters listened to a livestream of the arguments.

In a 2001 case, the high court had said immigrants cannot be detained for more than six months unless their deportation is “reasonably foreseeable.”

In Tuesday's cases, the government argued that holding should not extend to individuals who are seeking relief from deportation because those proceedings have an eventual endpoint, even if it is far off. The 3rd and 9th U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals disagreed in each case.

Matthew Adams of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, who represents Mexican national Esteban Aleman Gonzalez, told the court that the government cannot justify indefinite detention unless an individual is dangerous or a flight risk.

And the current practice of allowing immigration officers to determine in their discretion whether to release detainees, rather than putting the question to immigration judges, undermines detainees' due process rights, he said.

The petitioners are backed by amicus briefs from 44 immigrant rights groups and 26 former immigration judges.

The court's six conservative justices did not tip their hands during Tuesday's arguments, and focused much of their questioning on technical and procedural issues.

A ruling for the government would be in line with other recent decisions curbing detainees' ability to seek release. The Supreme Court in a 2018 ruling said detainees were not entitled to bond hearings under different federal laws from the one at issue in Tuesday's cases.

The cases are Johnson v. Arteaga-Martinez and Garland v. Gonzalez, U.S. Supreme Court, Nos. 19-896 and 20-322.

For Antonio Arteaga-Martinez: Pratik Shah of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld

For Esteban Aleman Gonzalez: Matthew Adams of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

For the government: Austin Raynor and Curtis Gannon of the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General

Read more:

Resolving split, SCOTUS says no bond for previously deported detainees

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at