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Now, this next story is a reminder of the complexities of immigration law. Today, the Supreme Court takes up important immigration questions. The case concerns immigrants who are detained for more than six months. The question is whether they have a right to a hearing to try to get out on bond. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: This case is not about people who enter the United States illegally. These are not the usual deportation cases where facts are cut and dried and people are deported after a month or two of detention. Rather, these are lawful permanent residents whom the government is trying to deport because they committed a crime, or they're people who turned themselves in at the border seeking asylum because they claim a reasonable fear of persecution.
When their cases are ultimately decided, these people have a good chance of prevailing. Forty percent of the lawful permanent residents and 70 percent of the asylum-seekers eventually win and remain here legally. The problem is their cases take a long time - on average, 13 months. And while detention may sound benign, it is not, says Ahilan Arulanantham, who will argue the immigrants' case today.
AHILAN ARULANANTHAM: Well, if you walk into a detention center, you would think you were in a prison. The people who are there wear colored jumpsuits. They live in cells or sometimes in dorm-style barracks. Their movement is strictly controlled by guards. If you want to go visit your family member, you can't touch them. You have to talk to them usually through a phone with a glass pane separating you.
TOTENBERG: Two federal appeals courts have ruled that, after six months, these detainees are entitled to a hearing to determine if they are a safety or flight risk. And if they're not, the lower court said, they should be allowed temporary release after posting a money bond or agreeing to electronic monitoring or both. The Obama administration is challenging those decisions, arguing that the lower courts exceeded their authority.
Lawyers for the immigrants make their argument through examples. The lead plaintiff in the case, for example, is Alejandro Rodriguez, a 39-year-old lawful permanent resident of the U.S. who was brought to this country when he was an infant. He was working as a dental assistant when he was picked up and detained for deportation based on a 1998 conviction for joy riding - not a deportable offense - and a later conviction for drug possession, which is deportable at the discretion of the immigration court.
Rodriguez was detained for three years and ultimately prevailed in keeping his status as a lawful permanent resident. The other category of people before the court today are asylum-seekers. They've been evaluated and judged to have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries. The ACLU, which is representing the immigrants in these cases, points, for example, to the case of an Ethiopian asylum-seeker who fled his homeland after he was abducted, held for over a year and tortured.
Upon arriving in the U.S., he was detained without any chance for release after a Department of Homeland Security officer mistakenly thought he was from Somalia. After he was detained for nine months, he was granted asylum. In today's case, immigration lawyers representing a class of 6,000 to 8,000 people contend the detentions that average 13 months amount to an unconstitutional deprivation of liberty for a prolonged period and that detainees are entitled to a bond hearing after six months.
The Obama administration replies that these arguments are all beside the point because, in the government's view, the executive and legislative branches traditionally have the power to control immigration matters, free from any judicial oversight. In short, the government argues that if Congress or the president want to change the law or the immigration regulations, either can do so, but the courts have no business meddling in such matters. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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