Supreme Court Won’t Lower Bar for Immigration Detainees to Sue Government
Supreme Court Won’t Lower Bar for Immigration Detainees to Sue Government

By Matthew Vadum

In a pair of rulings on June 13, the Supreme Court made it harder for those held in immigration detention to bring legal challenges.

In Johnson v. Arteaga-Martinez, court file 19-896, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote (pdf) for a unanimous court that the federal government is not required to conduct a bond hearing for noncitizens detained for six months on immigration-related grounds. (Justice Stephen Breyer filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.)

In the other case, Garland v. Aleman Gonzalez, court file 20-322, the court ruled 6–3 that the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) doesn’t give federal district courts jurisdiction to consider detainees’ requests for injunctive relief in class actions. The opinion (pdf) was by Justice Samuel Alito. Sotomayor and her two liberal colleagues partially dissented from the ruling.

At issue was whether Zadvydas v. Davis, a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that held federal law provides an implied time limit of six months for the immigration detention of noncitizens when their removal isn’t “reasonably foreseeable,” applies to detainees who have been ordered to be removed from the country.

Dale L. Wilcox, executive director and general counsel of the Immigration Law Reform Institute, hailed the new court decisions.

“The detention of removable aliens, whether they are illegal aliens or criminal aliens, is fundamentally different from detention as a sentence for a crime,” Wilcox told The Epoch Times by email.

“The United States is not holding them prisoner against their will. Rather, it is allowing them to remain in the United States while they challenge their deportation in the courts, and setting the conditions for their remaining here. If they don’t like those conditions, they can always leave detention and return to their native land. We are pleased that the Court reached the right result here, and squelched these lawsuits.”

In the Johnson case, Mexican national Antonio Arteaga-Martinez was the respondent. He was deported from the United States in July 2012 but reentered the country two months later. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a warrant for his arrest in 2018.

ICE reinstated the prior removal order and detained him under the INA. Arteaga-Martinez applied for withholding of removal, which means that at the conclusion of the adjudication process an immigration judge signs a deportation order and then informs the government that it may not carry it out. The “removal” of the person is said to be “withheld,” leaving the individual in a kind of legal limbo. In such cases, the government may still deport the person to another country if it agrees to accept him.

Arteaga-Martinez also sought relief under the Convention Against Torture, based on his fear that he would be persecuted or tortured if returned to Mexico. An asylum officer ruled in his favor and the government referred the case to an immigration judge for a withholding-only proceeding. After four months of detention, Arteaga-Martinez challenged his detention.

A federal district court ordered the government to hold a bond hearing for Arteaga-Martinez and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the ruling. At the bond hearing that followed, the immigration judge ordered his release pending resolution of his application for withholding of removal, a decision that the judge has yet to make.

The 3rd Circuit was out of line, Sotomayor wrote for the court.

Section 1231 of the INA “does not address or even hint” that the detainee is entitled to the relief the 3rd Circuit granted him, the justice wrote. The section “provides only that a noncitizen ordered removed ‘may be detained beyond the removal period’ and if released, ‘shall be subject to [certain] terms of supervision.’”

“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,” Sotomayor wrote.

The section “cannot be read to incorporate the procedures imposed by the courts below as a matter of textual command.”

In the Garland ruling, Alito wrote extensively about the meaning of legal terms involved in the case and found that the federal district courts “exceeded their jurisdiction” in allowing the litigation to proceed as a class action.

Section 1252 of the INA, according to Alito, “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 court reversed the appeals court and “remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

In Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, she lamented the court’s finding “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).”

The Supreme Court “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.”

University of Michigan Law School professor Leah Litman, who filed a brief to support respondent Esteban Aleman Gonzalez, was disappointed by the court’s ruling in his case.

Because immigration detainees, unlike criminal defendants, have no right to counsel, the decision is “just completely unworkable and unrealistic.”

“It makes it impossible to ensure that everyone who is potentially entitled to a bond hearing will get one,” she told Time.

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