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Deportation Guatemala

Guatemalan nationals arrive at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City on August 23, 2019 after being deported from the United States. (Photo: Josue Decavele/Getty Images)

Advocates Denounce 'Horrifying' SCOTUS Ruling Upholding Indefinite Immigrant Detention

"Today, six Supreme Court justices... sanctioned the United States' use of punitive, prolonged, and arbitrary detention as a means of immigration enforcement and deterrence."

Brett Wilkins

In a decision called "horrifying" by human rights advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the government may indefinitely detain previously deported immigrants who claim they will be tortured or persecuted if returned to their countries of origin.

"Why would Congress want to deny a bond hearing to individuals who reasonably fear persecution or torture, and who, as a result, face proceedings that may last for many months or years?"
—Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting

The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines in Johnson v. Guzman Chavez that a group of previously removed immigrants who were apprehended again after reentering the United States could not be released on bond while the government evaluates their claims of "reasonable fear" of torture or persecution. The decision reverses a U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the immigrants' favor.

Writing for the court's right-wing majority, Justice Samuel Alito noted that "Congress has created an expedited process" for the removal of "aliens" caught reentering the U.S. following a deportation.

"Those aliens are not entitled to a bond hearing while they pursue withholding of removal," Alito declared.

Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas rounded out the majority.

Justice Stephen Breyer penned a dissent that was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

"Why would Congress want to deny a bond hearing to individuals who reasonably fear persecution or torture, and who, as a result, face proceedings that may last for many months or years?" wrote Breyer. "I can find no satisfactory answer to this question."

Human rights advocates blasted the ruling. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, called the decision a "horrifying outcome" that was "written by the worst possible justice you could want to write an immigration case."

Sarah Paoletti, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School's Practice Professor of Law, and director of the Transnational Legal Clinic, wrote:

Just a day after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a hearing on egregious rights violations committed against individuals held in immigrant detention, and questioned the legitimacy of a system of detention that criminalizes individuals seeking refuge in the United States, the 6-3 conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, in Johnson v. Guzman Chavez, has dismissed U.S. obligations under international human rights law and ruled that persons seeking refuge in the United States after a prior order of removal must be held in detention without the right to a bond hearing while they pursue legal avenues for immigration relief.

"Today, six Supreme Court justices determined that the clear text of the Immigration and Nationality Act—provisions introduced into the law in 1996—gives individuals fleeing persecution no opportunity to challenge their detention," added Paoletti, "and in doing so have sanctioned the United States' use of punitive, prolonged, and arbitrary detention as a means of immigration enforcement and deterrence."


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