updated 1/16/2004 1:56:10 PM ET 2004-01-16T18:56:10

The Supreme Court said Friday it will decide whether authorities can imprison indefinitely hundreds of Cuban immigrant criminals and other illegal foreigners with no country to accept them.

About 2,220 people are in jail now, in limbo because the U.S. government says they’re too dangerous to be freed but they have no homeland.

The Bush administration wants the court to say that longtime detentions are OK, especially in light of post-Sept. 11 concerns about protecting America’s borders.

But the government narrowly lost the last time the issue came before the high court. Justices ruled in 2001 that it would be unconstitutional to detain legal immigrants who have served time for crimes for more than six months. In this follow-up case, justices will decide if people who come to America illegally, like Mariel Cubans, have the same rights.

Jailings could mean life sentence
Solicitor General Theodore Olson warned justices that they could create a “back door into the United States” for dangerous foreigners.

The test case involves a now-45-year-old man who fled Cuba with thousands of other people in 1980. Daniel Benitez was sent to prison in Florida for armed robbery, burglary and battery.
He finished his sentence in 2001, but has been in U.S. immigration custody since then, under a 1996 law that tightened restrictions on criminal aliens. The law allows extended jailings for people facing deportation, if the attorney general believes they are dangerous or will try to avoid being deported.

His lawyer, John Mills of Jacksonville, Fla., said that Benitez and the others “face the very real possibility of spending the rest of their lives incarcerated, not because of any crimes they may have committed, but because their countries will not take them back.”

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