Scott Martelle: Ways our immigration systems fail to deliver basic justice

January 3, 2019

Two court actions a continent apart are driving home — yet again — the point that the U.S. asylum system neither lives up to basic standards of human decency and due process nor, it seems, to the promises of the Constitution.

In New York on Thursday, a federal district court judge slammed the government for failing to even offer a bond hearing to a man it had detained for 34 months after he arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border and asked for asylum because of threats he’d received in his native Ivory Coast over his political affiliations.

Is that sufficient grounds for granting asylum? Good question, and we have both laws and a court system to guide the answer. Was it necessary for the government to detain Adou Kouadio, 43, while his application worked its way through the system?

No one knows because the government has not been forced to answer two basic questions: Does Kouadio pose a flight risk? And does he pose a danger to public safety? Both those fundamental questions determining whether an asylum-seeker or other migrant will remain incarcerated get addressed in a bond hearing.

Which the government has not granted. For 34 months.

U.S. District Court Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein on Thursday ordered a bond hearing be held within 14 days, a ruling legal experts said was both a rebuke to federal detention policies and a recognition that fundamental rights of due process extend to migrants.

“Petitioner has a clean record, never having been arrested or convicted,” Hellerstein wrote. “There is little risk of flight, since he seeks asylum within the United States, and little risk of danger to the community, judging from his lack of a prior criminal history. Yet, Petitioner has suffered 34 months of detention without an opportunity for a bond hearing while waiting for a final decision on his petition for asylum.”

The judge noted that the government had an interest in weighing due process rights against the national interest but that it had failed to make the case that Kouadio posed a particular threat.

“This nation prides itself on its humanity and openness with which it treats those who seek refuge at its gates,” Hellerstein wrote. “By contrast, the autocracies of the world have been marked by harsh regimes of exclusion and detention. Our notions of due process nourish the former spirit and brace us against the latter. The statutory framework governing those who seek refuge, and its provisions for detention, cannot be extended to deny all right to bail.”

Meanwhile, here on the West Coast, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Riverside to protect another right of migrants. The suit accuses the federal government and some of the organizations it relies on for detaining people facing deportation — private prison operator Geo Group and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department — of making it nearly impossible for migrants to consult lawyers, which they have a right to do.

Geo Group operates the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in San Bernardino County, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department operates the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange and the James A. Musick Facility near Irvine; all three facilities house migrants at ICE’s behest.

According to the complaint (which you really ought to read), three men seeking asylum have been unable to use telephones to find or consult with attorneys under bizarre systems in which the phones hang up automatically at the sound of an automated response, detained migrants are forced to make their calls within hearing of others (undermining fundamental attorney-client privilege), and detainees often don’t gain access to phones until after normal business hours.

Also, mail is slow to get delivered and sometimes arrives opened and damaged, further hindering the detainees’ ability to present their cases, the lawsuit charges.

These are no minor things. Hanging in the balance is the ability not only to get proper legal advice, but also to collect the sorts of documents often required to support an asylum claim.

Detainees have missed court deadlines because of slow mails and inability to gather their documents from far-flung sources.

And I should note this isn’t a Trump thing. ICE officials, and their contracted detention overseers, have been acting in such manners for years. One of the plaintiffs, Jason Nsinano of Namibia, was initially detained under the Obama administration, as was Kouadio, the man for whom the New York judge ordered a bond hearing.

Though that hearing might not do much good. Shortly after his detention, ICE determined that Nsinano posed neither a flight risk nor a danger to public safety and set bond at $10,000 — an amount that Nsinano doesn’t have.

So Nsinano has been incarcerated for more than three years not because he has been charged with a crime, nor because he poses a flight risk or danger to society, but because he sought asylum and didn’t have the foresight to bring $10,000 with him.

That’s outrageous.

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