Most immigrants detained in America’s sprawling immigration detention system stay for only a short time — an average of about 30 days — before being deported. But for those who choose to fight to stay in the United States — including asylum seekers, long-term undocumented residents, and green card holders who have strong family and community ties — detention can last for many months, sometimes even years.
While some detained immigrants are released on bond, others are deemed ineligible for bond by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and held until the conclusion of their immigration cases, and often even longer.
In an important victory for immigration detainees, a federal court in Los Angeles ordered last week that hundreds of immigrants who have been locked up for six months or more be provided hearings in Immigration Court to determine whether they may be released on bond. Some of the detainees affected by this ruling have been convicted of relatively minor crimes, such as possession of a small amount of drugs, while others are asylum seekers who arrive at the US border seeking protection from persecution and torture in their home countries.
While the ruling does not order immigration judges to authorize a bond for these detainees, it does require the government to justify their continued detention by proving that they are a flight risk or pose a danger to society.
The ruling, in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, is limited, applying only to detainees in the Los Angeles area, and may well be overturned. But for those whom it will benefit — asylum seekers who flee to the US only to be thrown in jail, and long-term documented and undocumented immigrants who have only minor criminal convictions — the decision is life-altering. Instead of being locked up for months or years while their cases wind through the Immigration Court system, these immigrants will be able to establish or maintain ties to their communities, work to support their families, and avoid the physical and psychological harm that can result from long-term detention.
The decision also strikes a blow at the profligate spending that underpins the immigration detention system. At a cost of over $2 billion per year, or about $164 per detainee per day, the immigration detention system is needlessly expensive, particularly at a time of rising deficits and contracting budgets. While the number of detained immigrants will not decrease without Congressional action, affording bond hearings to non-violent immigrants and asylum seekers will free up space for ICE to focus on its stated priority [pdf] of deporting the most violent and dangerous criminals.
The detention system has massive problems. But small victories like this, achieved by the ACLU and its partners, are chipping away at the worst abuses of the system and restoring due process rights to detained immigrants.