Some immigrants may be detained indefinitely, Supreme Court rules

Photo by Maya Washburn

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the federal government can detain certain immigrants who are in removal proceedings for more than six months without a bond hearing.

In an 8-1 ruling last Monday, the high court overturned two decisions by lower courts that permitted bond to two defendants — Antonio Arteaga-Martínez and Esteban Alemán González — who were each detained when they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without legal papers. Both said they feared persecution or torture if returned to Mexico.

The court looked just at a federal statute and not the constitutionality of whether detained immigrants are entitled to a time limit on detentions and a bond hearing. This was highlighted by Justice Stephen Breyer in his partial dissenting opinion.

The court referred to Zadvydas v. Davis — a case decided in 2001 with ambiguous terms that left this issue up for interpretation — as precedent.

Breyer pointed to potential dangers. “In Zadvydas, the word ‘may’ created ambiguity that permitted the Court to interpret [the statute before us] in a manner that avoided the constitutional problem that indefinite detention could have created,” wrote Breyer.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, agreed that the constitutionality must be reviewed, but that was not the question at hand.

“The issue, in this case, is whether the text of [the statute] requires the Government to offer detained noncitizens bond hearings after six months of detention in which the Government bears the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that a noncitizen poses a flight risk or a danger to the community,” wrote Sotomayor in the majority opinion. “It does not.”

Matt Adams is legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project which represented González, a Mexican national who brought this case before the Court. He said the ruling differed from previous understandings of the statute.

“To now find that the statute allows for indefinite detention is contrary to a fundamental principle upon which our system was founded — that government officials may not lock up a person without at least providing them their day in court to contest whether their confinement is justified,” Adams said in a statement. “But we are not done, and will return to court to address the constitutional claim that must now be resolved.”

Immigration advocates point to the ruling as yet another case of unfinished business related to immigration issues.

Karen García, a Florida International University graduate student in Spanish-language journalism, is a DACA recipient who came to the United States from Mexico when she was 10 years old.

“This is going to sound very blunt, but I don’t know how surprising [the ruling] is,” said García. “Ever since I’ve been here I don’t know if I’ve experienced anything other than political parties holding us hostage in a way. [They] talk about the need for a path to be legal in this country for us undocumented immigrants and it hasn’t happened.”

García pointed to the widespread privatization of detainment facilities, generating a financial motive for the centers where close to 72 percent of detained immigrants are held, according to the Urban Justice Center’s Corrections Accountability Project.

GEO Group and CoreCivic, two large companies that manage these private detention facilities, earned a combined $985 million from contracts with ICE, as reported by GQ magazine.

“They get paid by the night for the number of beds they have filled,” said García. “Well, they want to keep their facilities packed with because they’re getting paid.”

García spoke about her gratitude for DACA, but emphasized that the program is a temporary fix for a long-term problem. 

DACA is currently being contested in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments are set to begin in July.

“DACA exists today, but we don’t know how long that is going to be and that is temporary relief,” said García. “I seriously cannot emphasize how scary that is, because when DACA came along, it allowed many of us to experience a lot of freedom–to be able to work, drive [and] go to college. You’re giving a taste of what life is and how good it can be, and then you can take it away.”

Maya Washburn is an SFMN DC bureau summer correspondent studying digital journalism with a concentration in criminal justice at the FIU Honors College. Her primary focus is reporting on previously untold stories, with her writing often involving investigations, underrepresented issues, crime, mental health, education, politics and more.