Supreme Court Backs Trump Administration in Deportation Case

(Bloomberg) -- A divided U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the government’s power to detain people who are facing deportation because of crimes they committed, siding with the Trump administration in a clash with implications for so-called sanctuary cities.

The case focused on non-citizen legal residents who serve a criminal sentence, get released and later are arrested by federal immigration agents.

The 5-4 ruling Tuesday said those people aren’t entitled to a bond hearing, and the possibility of re-release, while the Homeland Security Department presses its case for deportation. The ruling reversed a decision by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In announcing the decision from the bench, Justice Samuel Alito said the lower court had made a "policy judgment" using reasoning that "makes a mockery" of the federal immigration laws.

Under those laws, people are subject to "mandatory detention," meaning they don’t get a bond hearing, if they finish their criminal sentences and are then taken into custody by DHS agents. Alito said he read the law as imposing mandatory detention even if DHS doesn’t take custody right away and the person has already been released.

Federal agents often aren’t on hand to take custody when an immigrant is released by state or local officials.

President Donald Trump’s administration says the problem is especially acute in jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with requests to hold a prisoner until federal officials arrive. Those jurisdictions are commonly known as sanctuary cities. The Trump administration inherited the case from the Obama administration.

Splintered Conservatives

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the majority, but they splintered in their reasoning.

Thomas and Gorsuch didn’t agree with all of Alito’s opinion. They said courts lack power to consider issues involving the detention of non-citizens until those people are facing a deportation order.

Kavanaugh wrote separately to emphasize what he said was the narrowness of the ruling.

"No constitutional issue is presented," he wrote. "The issue before us is entirely statutory and requires our interpretation of the strict 1996 illegal-immigration law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton."

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented. In an opinion for the group, Breyer said the majority’s interpretation of federal immigration law "creates serious constitutional problems."

"That reading would give the secretary authority to arrest and detain aliens years after they have committed a minor crime and then hold them without a bail hearing for months or years," Breyer wrote.

In the case before the court, some of the affected people had been living in their communities for years before facing deportation proceedings. The people involved include Mony Preap, a lawful permanent resident who came to the U.S. as an infant in 1981 when his family fled Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.

Marijuana Conviction

Preap was convicted of two counts of marijuana possession in California and released from jail in 2006. Although that offense potentially made him vulnerable to deportation, federal officials didn’t seize him until 2013, after he was convicted of the non-deportable offense of battery.

Federal officials then held him for three months without a bond hearing while trying to deport him over the marijuana conviction. Preap eventually won the deportation case and was released to his family.

The ruling is the second Supreme Court decision in 13 months to curb bond hearings for people facing deportation. The court last year overturned a ruling that had guaranteed periodic bond hearings, and the possibility of release, for thousands of detained foreigners.

“For two terms in a row now, the Supreme Court has endorsed the most extreme interpretation of immigration detention statutes, allowing mass incarceration of people without any hearing, simply because they are defending themselves against a deportation charge," said Cecillia Wang, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the latest case.

The case is Nielsen v. Preap, 16-1363.

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