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Supreme Court limits immigrant detentions

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government may not indefinitely imprison illegal immigrants who could not be deported to their home countries.
/ Source: Reuters

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government may not indefinitely imprison immigrants who had been in the United States illegally for years and could not be deported to their home countries.

The court’s 7-to-2 ruling was a defeat for the Justice Department, which said the issue affected more than 2,000 detained immigrants who cannot be deported. Nearly half of them had arrived in the United States illegally from Cuba as part of the 1990 Mariel boatlift.

The court agreed to extend the reach of a ruling issued in 2001 that limited detention to a “reasonable period,” generally six months. That ruling concerned immigrants who entered the country legally, committed crimes that made them deportable and then were refused reentry by their home governments.

The latest decision involved immigrants in the same circumstances but who had entered the country illegally.

2,300 appear immediately affected
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of Homeland Security has reported that it has detained about 2,300 people who arrived at the border illegally and are awaiting deportation.

More than half, including 920 who tried to enter the United States illegally as part of the Mariel boatlift, have been imprisoned for more than six months while the government seeks to deport them.

Most of them had been in the country for a number of years, committed a crime, served their sentence and then were taken into custody by immigration authorities.

In the case of one of two plaintiffs, Daniel Benitez, who entered the United States illegally during the Mariel boatlift, his application to become a lawful permanent resident was denied after his conviction.

After serving a prison sentence for other crimes, Benitez was returned to immigration custody in 2001 while the United States sought to arrange his deportation to Cuba or another nation. In January 2002, Benitez sued and said he had been detained unlawfully.

The other case before the court involved another Mariel immigrant, Sergio Suarez Martinez. He was convicted of various crimes, released from prison and then taken into custody by immigration officials while awaiting deportation.

In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia rejected concerns by the government that the security of the U.S. borders would be compromised if the immigrants must be released. If need be, Congress can act, he said.

Scalia said that after the 2001 ruling, Congress adopted a law authorizing continued detention of certain immigrants, including those who presented national security threats or had been involved in terrorist activities.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.