WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday strengthened the Trump administration’s power to hold immigrants in jail for months or years as they fight deportation, ruling federal law gives these detainees no right to a bail hearing nor a chance to go free.
In the 5-3 decision, the court’s majority found federal law says immigrants who face deportation “shall be detained” while their cases are being considered. The court’s conservatives rejected the view of federal judges in California who said detained immigrants have a right to a bail hearing after six months in jail.
The ruling in the case of Jennings v. Rodriguez is a setback, but not a final defeat, for immigrants’ rights activists in Los Angeles who brought a class-action suit on behalf of tens of thousands of non-citizens who are arrested and held for possible deportation. They include people who seek asylum because they fled persecution as well as people who have a lawful status here but were arrested because they had a crime on their records.
Many of these immigrants eventually win their cases, but only after they have spent a year or more in jail. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided they should have a hearing after six months and a right to go free if they could show they were not a danger to the community or likely to flee.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., speaking for the high court, said the federal immigration law does not call for bail hearings, and the 9th Circuit had no authority to order them.
However, the justices did not rule on whether the Constitution gives detained immigrants a right to a hearing, and sent the case back to California for that issue to be decided.
Justice Stephen Breyer read his dissent in court and said the ruling would affect thousands of people in jail “who believe they have a right to enter or remain in the United States.”
As he noted, the Constitution says no person “shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” and the word “person” has been understood to include non-citizens and immigrants who are here without documentation.
Cornell law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr said court data show “there are over 667,000 cases pending in immigration court, with an average backlog of almost two years. The Trump administration has asked Congress to increase funding to detain more immigrants. Thus, even more immigrants may be detained in the coming months and will have to wait even longer for their day in court.”
Joining Alito in the majority were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Neil Gorsuch and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
The dissenters included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case, possibly because she worked in the Justice Department when the case was first appealed.