Supreme Court curbs ability of immigrants to challenge indefinite detention with bond hearings

A group of immigrants argued the law requires the government to provide a bond hearing with an immigration judge after six months of detention. The Supreme Court ruled the law says no such thing.

John Fritze
  • The court ruled the law is silent on bond hearings for immigrants detained six months or longer.
  • Justice Breyer dissented in part, calling attention to a 2001 ruling barring indefinite detention.

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday curbed the ability of immigrants to challenge indefinite detentions, ruling that U.S. immigration law does not require the government to hold bond hearings for noncitizens detained for six months.

In a pair of decisions, the high court shot down claims from immigrants who entered the country illegally and asserted the law required, after prolonged detention, that an immigration judge assess whether they posed a flight risk or were a danger.  

But in an 8-1 ruling that brought together the conservative and liberal wings of the court, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the law is silent on the point. The court sent the lawsuit back to lower federal courts to reconsider in light of that assessment. 

"On its face, the statute says nothing about bond hearings before immigration judges or burdens of proof," Sotomayor wrote. "Nor does it provide any other indication that such procedures are required."

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Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who partially dissented, pointed to a 2001 precedent in which the court held that immigrants could not be subjected to indefinite detention. It was Breyer who wrote the opinion for a 5-4 majority in the earlier case.  

At issue are immigrants who are fighting deportation orders on the grounds that they face persecution in their home countries. The process to assess those claims can take months or years in immigration courts, leaving applicants languishing in detention. 

Antonio Arteaga-Martinez, a Mexican national who entered the United States four times, sought to have his deportation put on hold in 2018 under a process that is similar to asylum. Four months later, as he remained confined without resolution of his case, he challenged his detention in federal court. 

Incoming and outgoing immigration detainees are processed at the Krome Service Processing Center in Miami, Florida. Krome is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility housing over 650 ICE detainees per day.

"The government seeks to detain him while an immigration judge considers his claim that he will be persecuted or tortured if he is returned to Mexico," Breyer wrote Monday. "There is less reason, not more, to detain Arteaga-Martinez without bail."

Federal law allows the government to detain immigrants with deportation orders for up to 90 days but is fuzzy on what happens after that. The Supreme Court ruled in the 2001 decision that the government must offer "special justification" to extend the detention or risk running afoul of the Constitution’s due process clause.

A federal district court in Pennsylvania sided with Arteaga-Martinez, granting the bond hearing, and he was released. The Trump administration appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia sided also sided with Arteaga-Martinez.

In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have gone further, questioning whether detained immigrants are entitled to due process rights under the Constitution. "Illegal aliens deemed removable have no 'right of release into this country,'" Thomas wrote. 

In a separate decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that federal district courts do not have authority to force the federal government to release a broader class of immigrants after 180 days without a bond hearing. The more procedural question was whether the courts could act broadly for all immigrants in the same position.

Writing for a six-justice majority, Associate Justice Samuel Alito said the law barred the lower courts from providing the outcome sought by the immigrants – a result that will make it more difficult for immigrants to challenge long detentions. Sotomayor, in a partial dissent, said the outcome will force individual immigrants to challenge detention and that it would "leave many vulnerable noncitizens unable to protect their rights."

Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said that the court had "turned its back" on its earlier interpretation of the law.

"To now find that the statute allows for indefinite detention is contrary to a fundamental principle upon which our system was founded, that government officials may not lock up a person without at least providing them their day in court," Adams said. 

The cases arrived at the court at a time when the justices have tended to rule against immigrants. A divided Supreme Court last year required Biden to reinstate a controversial immigration policy from the Trump administration that requires migrants to wait in Mexico while U.S. officials process their asylum claims.

That case returned to the court in April and a decision is expected this month.