Overdue Process: Detained Immigrants Wait Indefinitely for Justice

By Michelle Chen Aug 06, 2009

For thousands of immigrants in federal custody, the price of resisting deportation is indefinite incarceration, with no opportunity even to challenge their detention in court. That’s what the ACLU is arguing in a class action lawsuit filed in a Pennsylvania federal court. The two main petitioners, Elliot Grenade and Alexander Alli, lived as permanent residents before being swept into federal detention. Grenade, who immigrated 28 years ago from Trinidad and Tobago, has been detained for nearly two years, after serving time for a past drug sale offense. Alli, a Ghanian immigrant who ran a real estate business in the Bronx, was ordered deported following convictions for credit card fraud. Though he has been deemed eligible to apply for a waiver for immigration relief, for nearly a year, he has never been able to challenge his prolonged detention in a custody hearing. The ACLU says that keeping people in detention indefinitely, even when they pose no public threat, is a blatant violation of due process, not to mention a tremendous waste of taxpayer money. The immigration detention system has come to mirror the country’s prison system—bloated, underfunded, and often brutal. But it is in some ways even more arbitrary, as it handles people whose non-citizen status leaves them especially vulnerable to mistreatment. According to the ACLU’s complaint:

On any given day—DHS detains more than one thousand noncitizens in jails across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, particularly in the Middle District of Pennsylvania…. many are lawful permanent residents who are detained for months, if not years, while the immigration courts and federal courts resolve their cases. Yet they never receive a custody hearing to determine whether their prolonged detention is even necessary. Indeed, many choose to abandon their meritorious cases because they cannot endure the prospect of being locked up indefinitely.

It makes sense that even people who shouldn’t be deported might simply choose to leave the country, when the alternative is a de facto prison term that lasts essentially as long as the government wants. The system in effect pressures people forgo their own rights because they can’t bear the treatment they must endure in order to seek justice. Grenade isn’t asking for much:

If released, Mr. Grenade intends to join his mother and children in Danville, Virginia and help support his family. He has no violent criminal history, strong family ties, and a colorable claim to relief that gives him a strong incentive to appear for his removal proceedings. Moreover, he has agreed to submit to supervision during the pendency of his case, including electronic monitoring if necessary.

Alli and Grenada might fall within a class of immigrants that some would categorize as “undesirable.” They’ve been convicted of actual crimes, albeit nonviolent ones, rather than just civil immigration violations. But they are also active members of their communities, who have already done their time in the regular criminal justice system, and just want to return to their families. And although they’ve built credible legal cases for remaining in the country, their lawsuit is not about escaping deportation. All they’re asking for is a chance to argue before a court that they shouldn’t be imprisoned indefinitely while they wait for the wheels of justice to turn. Image: Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia (Kate Brumback / AP)