Haitian Asylum Seeker Freed in Landmark Bond Case

MANHATTAN (CN) — With indefinite immigration detention now banned here, a federal judge expanded rights for asylum seekers, finding that a Haitian fleeing violence could not be saddled with an unpayable bond.

“It cannot be that somebody can be detained simply for being poor,” U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams said in a Wednesday hearing at the Southern District of New York.

Having already served 232 days in immigration detention, Renaldo Celestin will now have the opportunity to have his family pay a $2,000 bond, a fifth of the $10,000 amount that an immigration judge imposed in April.

Celestin, 25, expects his farmworker relatives in South Florida will be able to afford the reduced bond, and he will be free once they pay.

Paige Austin, an attorney for the immigrant with the nonprofit Bronx Defenders group, said that today’s ruling establishes an important principle.

“The court has rightly recognized that low-income people should not be held in immigration detention with no end in sight while their case is pending, simply because they cannot afford to pay an immigration bond,” Austin said in a statement. “By ruling that ability to pay must be taken into consideration when determining a bond amount, the court is ensuring that our immigrant clients’ constitutional and statutory rights are protected.”

A native of La Gonave, a dry and largely barren island of Haiti, Celestin voluntarily surrendered to U.S. immigration authorities at the Mexican border in San Ysidro, California, on Oct. 26, 2016.

There, Celestin told an asylum officer that masked men posing as police abducted him and his brother to steal their family’s land, then beat him unconscious and murdered his brother.

After fleeing first to the Dominican Republic, Celestin’s journey took him to Brazil. As explained in a 26-page habeas petition, however, Celestin had trouble finding work there, and ultimately left after witnessing widespread violence against Haitians.

The U.S. asylum officer who examined Celestin determined that he established “credible fear of torture” in Haiti, giving him strong chances for obtaining U.S. citizenship.

Michael Noveck, another attorney for Celestin with the international law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, said that two-thirds of asylum applicants who establish this fear ultimately have their applications granted.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Waterman has argued that Celestin’s claims are undermined by what he told officials at the border.

“I left Haiti to find work for a better life,” Celestin said at the time.

Waterman says Celestin denied any concern about fear of persecution, but Noveck has chalked the discrepancy up to a language barrier.

Judge Abrams meanwhile noted that both an asylum officer and an immigration judge credited Celestin’s story.

That story could get stronger now that Celestin is free from detention, attorney Noveck added.

“Today’s decision by Judge Abrams is a significant victory for Mr. Celestin, who will now be able to collect crucial evidence about the persecution he faced in Haiti,” Noveck, who is representing Celestin pro bono, said in an email.

Among the nation’s top immigration groups to have taken note of Celestin’s case are Brooklyn Defender Services, New York University’s Immigrant Rights Clinic of Washington Square, Cardozo Law School’s Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic and Legal Aid Society of New York.

Two years ago, many of these groups helped achieve a landmark ruling from the Second Circuit in the case of Alexander Lora, whose case established the principle that immigration detainees must be granted a bail hearing within six months.

Expanding upon the Lora precedent in a friend-of-the-court brief for Celestin, the groups argued that it is unconstitutional to hold a bond hearing where an immigration judge does not consider the ability to pay.

“Since ‘justice that is blind to poverty and indiscriminately forces defendants to pay for their liberty is not justice at all,’ this court should hold that immigration judges must be required to engage in a meaningful inquiry into immigrant detainees’ ability to pay and alternative conditions of release when conducting bond hearings,” the Immigration Rights Clinic’s attorney Alina Das wrote in a 22-page brief.

Judge Abrams agreed at a hearing on Wednesday that the justice system should not “punish a person for poverty.”

“I don’t see a valid reason that these considerations cannot be considered in the immigration context,” Abrams added.

Celestin still faces a hearing on the merits of his asylum claim. This is scheduled for June 26.

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