Unprecedented Ruling on Immigrants' Right To Be Free From Artbitrary Detention

January 20, 2012 12:41 pm

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District Court Rules that “Arriving Aliens” May Not Be Subjected to Prolonged Detention Without a Hearing To Determine Whether Detention Is Justified

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SAN DIEGO — A district court today ruled that the Department of Homeland Security may not detain an immigrant for a prolonged period without proving that detention is justified in an individualized hearing. It is the first ruling to find that immigrants classified as “arriving aliens” – a large group encompassing all individuals stopped at the border, including asylum seekers – are entitled to fair hearing protections against arbitrary detention. DHS had argued that it has sole discretion to decide whether to detain or release an “arriving alien” and that the law does not require detention hearings.

The San Diego ACLU brought a habeas petition on behalf of Glorismel Centeno Ortiz in August 2011 after he had languished in immigration detention for three years. The government had held Centeno without a hearing to determine whether his detention was justified by classifying him as an “arriving alien,” a category that can apply even to individuals who have lived in the United States for decades with legal status. The government relies on Cold War-era rulings to justify its position that “arriving aliens” like Mr. Centeno have no due process rights to physical liberty.

Mr. Centeno, an asylum seeker who has lived in the United States since he was 11 years old was released from custody shortly after the ACLU filed the habeas petition. The government then argued that the habeas petition was moot.

Today’s ruling by Chief Judge Irma Gonzalez of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California rejected both the government’s mootness argument and its position that arriving aliens could be detained without so much as an individualized hearing to determine whether their detention is justified.

“Under the court’s ruling, asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution and torture in their home lands should finally receive a fair hearing to determine whether their detention serves any purpose,” said Sean Riordan, staff attorney of the San Diego ACLU. “For too long the government has withheld this kind of minimal due process protection to those who need it most.”

Centeno was brought to Los Angeles by his mother, who was fleeing the violence of the Salvadoran civil war, in which her brother was killed by guerillas. As a teenager, Centeno became entangled with gangs and was convicted of armed robbery and deported to El Salvador, even though his petition for asylum was still pending. Fearing for his life Centeno returned to Los Angeles and obtained counseling from Homies Unidos, an organization that helps young people leave gangs.

Since his return to the United Sates, Centeno has dedicated his life to helping other young men leave the life of gangs. He has lead camping trips and given talks at schools, all the while working as a dishwasher, car mechanic, air conditioning repairman and raising his son. According to a senior staff member at Homies Unidos, Centeno is “one of our most reliable and committed volunteers.”

In 2007, Centeno went to Tijuana to enjoy a night out with friends. When he returned to the border, he was immediately arrested and charged with criminal illegal reentry after deportation. In July 2008, a judge dismissed criminal charges against Centeno, but he remained in detention several more years, until his release in September.

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