WASHINGTON — President Trump’s crackdown on immigration got some help Tuesday when the Supreme Court ruled that it’s legal to detain non-citizens indefinitely pending deportation.
After apparently reaching a 4-4 deadlock on the issue last year, the justices ruled 5-3 against a group of immigrants protesting detentions averaging 13 months. But they ruled on the law rather than the Constitution, which could give the challengers another chance to win their case in lower courts.
Thousands of immigrants facing possible deportation are held for a year or longer before getting a hearing, including lawful permanent residents and people seeking asylum.
The court’s opinion by Justice Samuel Alito reversed a federal appeals court ruling that had read a six-month limit into a federal law that allows for detaining immigrants without bail while their status is reviewed.
“Nothing in the statutory text imposes any limit on the length of detention,” he said, nor does it say “anything whatsoever about bond hearings.”
The court’s conservatives joined his opinion, either in full or in part. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, while Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case.
“The many thousands of individuals involved in this case are persons who believe they have a right to enter into or remain in the United States, and a sizable number turn out to be right,” Breyer said from the bench.
“The government … holds them confined in jails or prisons for months, sometimes for years, until the matter can be resolved. And they spend those months or years imprisoned without bail.”
Under current law, immigrants who have committed even minor criminal offenses and those picked up crossing the border can be held indefinitely during deportation proceedings. The California-based appeals court ruled in 2015 that they cannot be held more than six months without a hearing.
The court had appeared deadlocked on the issue in November 2016, when it first heard the case with only eight justices. The more conservative justices noted that the executive branch has wide latitude on matters of immigration. The more liberal justices questioned whether immigration laws circumvent constitutional protections.
Following the addition of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch last April, the court reconsidered the issue in October. Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart defended the process, arguing during oral argument that “whatever process Congress chooses to give is due process.”
“That’s lawlessness,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor shot back. “That’s basically saying that we’re not a country of law, that we’re a country of arbitrariness in detaining people, locking them up.”
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