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2nd Cir. Bars Indefinite Immigration Detention

MANHATTAN (CN) - Joining its sister appellate court on the West Coast, the Second Circuit set a six-month limit on immigration detention on Wednesday to prevent what it called the "significant constitutional concern" of "indefinite incarceration."

Alexander Lora, 32, was not even a teenager when he arrived in Brooklyn, N.Y. from the Dominican Republic in 1990.

Educated in the United States, Lora has gone to school and worked in grocery stores to support himself and his two sons. He also has a chronically-ill mother, a father, a fiancée, a brother and a sister.

In 2009, authorities busted Lora and a co-worker at his grocery store for cocaine possession.

His guilty plea for this offense carried a sentence of five years' probation, but also triggered a decades-old law mandating detention and removal proceedings for immigrants who commit certain crimes.

More than three years into Lora's probation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him in an early morning raid of his home on Nov. 22, 2013.

He spent nearly six months after that at the Hudson County Correctional Center in New Jersey, pending removal proceedings.

Early last year, a New York state court granted Lora's petition to vacate his plea and sentence, but an immigration judge still refused to grant him a bail hearing.

He took the matter to Federal Court with a writ of habeas corpus, which U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Peck granted in April 2014.

Though newly free, Lora had to fight an appeal by prosecutors and won some high-profile support as amicus briefs poured in from more than a dozen civil liberties groups, including the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project and the Immigration Justice Clinic of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Second Circuit upheld his habeas victory on Wednesday.

Writing for the court, Circuit Judge Barrington Parker noted that the number of immigration detainees and their wait times have grown since the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

"No doubt an appreciable number of these detainees have criminal records that subject them to mandatory deportation," Parker wrote. "Many in this group are dangerous or have no ties to a community."

But Lora counted himself among the group who "are not dangerous, have strong family and community ties, are not flight risks and may have meritorious defenses to deportation at such time as they are able to present them," he added.

To protect such immigrants, the Second Circuit carved out a six-month detention limit.

The Ninth Circuit created this cut-off point in 2013 - and affirmed it again , also on Wednesday.

Judy Rabinovitz, the deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Projects, noted in a phone interview that the Third Circuit also agreed in principle on detention limits.

The First and 11th Circuits will hear similar cases on Tuesday and in January, respectively, she added.

"It's just a basic due-process protection to make sure that we're not locking up people without giving them a chance," Rabinovitz said.

Alina Das, who represents Lora as a co-director of New York University's Immigrant Rights Clinic, praised what she called an "important" decision.

"All immigrants in detention deserve a fair bond hearing," she said. "The Second Circuit's decision is an important step in ensuring that community members like Mr. Lora do not have to languish in detention for six months without a bond hearing, needlessly separated from their families, while their immigration cases are processed."

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

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