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Immigrant detainees fighting for bond hearings served double defeat at high court

The decisions spurred dissents in which the liberal justices warn of the grave repercussions that will unfold if America's complex judicial system is made more inaccessible for those most vulnerable. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Immigrants seeking U.S. asylum who face indefinite detention here while their claims are being evaluated failed to secure Supreme Court relief in a pair of rulings Monday. 

The high court sided with the government, holding that immigrants detained for six months after reentering the country are not entitled to bond hearings. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion for the nearly unanimous court, with Justice Stephen Breyer offering a partial dissent. 

Two Mexican nationals, Antonio Arteaga-Martinez and Esteban Aleman Gonzalez, brought the underlying cases. Each fled his home country out of fear of violence from street gangs and criminals. They were deported upon making the first border crossing into the U.S. illegally, but both chose to return in search of a safer life. Once detained, they attempted to file asylum claims on the grounds that their lives were threatened in Mexico. 

While the U.S. government processed their asylum claims, both men remained in detention indefinitely. Civil rights attorneys called it unconstitutional for the U.S. to hold such detainees longer than six months without scheduling a hearing in which they could make their case to secure bond. 

Arteaga-Martinez, for one, filed a habeas petition four months into his detention. Once six months had elapsed, a federal judge granted his habeas petition and ordered a bond hearing. The Third Circuit summarily affirmed. 

Sotomayor said there is no reading of the Immigration and Nationality Act that requires the government to provide bond hearings. 

“On its face, the statute says nothing about bond hearings before immigration judges or burdens of proof, nor does it provide any other indication that such procedures are required,” the Obama appointee wrote. “Faithfully applying our precedent, the Court can no more discern such requirements from the text of §1231(a)(6) than a periodic bond hearing requirement from the text of §1226(a). Section 1231(a)(6) therefore cannot be read to incorporate the procedures imposed by the courts below as a matter of textual command.” 

Pratik Shah, an attorney with Akin Gump representing Arteaga-Martinez, did not return a request for comment, nor did the Department of Justice. 

During oral arguments in January, the justices were divided over how to apply their precedents to the indefinite detention of immigrants without creating chaos for the lower courts. The justices focused on the 2001 decision in Zadvydas v. Davis, written by Breyer, that says noncitizens must be removed from detention after six months when their deportation is not “reasonably foreseeable.” 

Arteaga-Martinez argued he was entitled to release under Zadvydas because his removal was not reasonably foreseeable. The government said that issue was not before the court, and the justices agreed, declining to reach a decision on the issue. 

In his partial dissent, Breyer said the court had only to look to Zadvydas to decide the case. 

“In my view, Zadvydas controls the outcome here,” the Clinton appointee wrote. “The statutory language is identical, which is not surprising, for this case concerns the same statutory provision. There are two conceivable differences between this case and Zadvydas, but both argue in favor of applying Zadvydas’ holding here.” 

Breyer’s disagreement stems from implementing Zadvydas’ standard in this context, which the majority does not do. 

“Since the Court remands this case for further proceedings, I would add that, in my view, Zadvydas applies (the Court does not hold to the contrary), and the parties are free to argue about the proper way to implement Zadvydas’ standard in this context, and, if necessary, to consider the underlying constitutional question, a matter that this Court has not decided,” Breyer wrote (parentheses in original). 


Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project representing Gonzales, said the court turned its back on prior interpretations 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.” 

Asking the same question on bond hearings, Gonzales’ case differed from that of Artega-Martinez because it asked if lower courts had jurisdiction to grant relief in class action suits. A federal judge found that Gonzales and others in his suit must receive a bond hearing before an immigration judge before they have reached 180 days in detention. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. 

In a 6-3 decision, the high court said the INA prevented class-action rulings in such cases. Justice Samuel Alito authored the majority’s opinion, and Sotomayor wrote a partial dissent joined by Kagan and Breyer. 

Alito said that the text of the statute strips lower courts of the jurisdiction and authority to offer classwide relief in these cases. 

“Putting these terms together, §1252(f )(1) generally prohibits lower courts from entering injunctions that order federal officials to take or to refrain from taking actions to enforce, implement, or otherwise carry out the specified statutory provisions,” the Bush appointee wrote. 

But Alito also noted one exception to the lower court’s authority in this area: immigrants against whom proceedings have already started. 

“The Court has already commented on the meaning of this exception,” Alito wrote. “In Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Comm., we wrote that §1252(f )(1) ‘prohibits federal courts from granting classwide injunctive relief ‘ but ‘does not extend to individual cases.’”

The liberal justices disagreed with Alito’s textual analysis and warn that the ruling will leave migrants unable to protect their rights. 

“The Court holds that lower federal courts are powerless to issue classwide injunctive relief against the Executive Branch’s violation of noncitizens’ rights under several provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA),” Sotomayor wrote. “It reaches this conclusion in a purportedly textualist opinion that, in truth, elevates piecemeal dictionary definitions and policy concerns over plain meaning and context. I respectfully dissent from the Court’s blinkered analysis, which will leave many vulnerable noncitizens unable to protect their rights.” 

Sotomayor said the statute uses two clauses that both give lower courts the authority to offer classwide injunctive relief, but the majority disregards Congress’ language the reach a different conclusion. 

“Properly read, both clauses independently preserve the lower courts’ authority to order classwide injunctive relief compelling the Executive Branch to comply with the INA in these cases,” Sotomayor wrote. “The Court holds otherwise only by disregarding the language Congress used in §1252(f )(1) itself, elsewhere in §1252, and in the INA as a whole.” 

The dissent focuses on the practical realities of the removal and detention system. Sotomayor notes that most migrants are not familiar with the U.S. legal system or even fluent in English. These individuals face an uphill battle, the dissent claims, trying to pursue successful asylum claims. 

“It is one matter to expect noncitizens facing these obstacles to defend against their removal in immigration court,” Sotomayor wrote. “It is another entirely to place upon each of them the added burden of contesting systemic violations of their rights through discrete, collateral, federal-court proceedings. In a great many cases, the inevitable consequence of barring classwide injunctive relief will be that those violations will go unremedied, except as to the few fortunate enough to afford competent collateral counsel or to secure vigorous pro bono representation. The burdens will fall on those least able to vindicate their rights, as well as the law firms and nonprofit organizations that will endeavor to assist as many of these noncitizens as their capacity permits.”

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