Seeking Release for Detained Immigrants in the Deep South
In late August 2020, CAIR Coalition’s Immigration Impact Lab (Lab) and co-counsel Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) obtained the first win in a habeas action in the District Court for the Middle District of Georgia challenging on due process grounds an individual’s prolonged mandatory detention pending his removal proceedings. When our client Luis* won his habeas case, he had been detained in ICE custody without a bond hearing for over 16 months.
Luis, a lawful permanent resident (LPR) in his 20s, has lived in the United States legally since he was a child. DHS placed Luis in removal proceedings based on his convictions for driving offenses and another misdemeanor offense. These convictions also subjected Luis to mandatory detention during the duration of his immigration proceedings, with no opportunity for bond. After completing his criminal sentence, Luis was taken into ICE custody at Farmville Detention Center in Virginia. While Luis’s case was pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), ICE transferred him to Stewart Detention Center (Stewart) in Lumpkin, Georgia, away from his family and friends in Virginia.
ICE frequently transfers individuals whose cases are pending before the BIA, including many of CAIR Coalition’s clients, to Stewart in anticipation of their removals. Stewart is one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the U.S. and has one of the highest deportation rates in the country. It is located in a remote rural area, away from most private attorneys and legal services non-profits. The vast majority of individuals detained at Stewart lack legal representation. Operated by CoreCivic, the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, Stewart has been deemed “a prison-like facility” by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. According to ICE, as of October 1, 2020, 354 detained immigrants at Stewart have tested positive for COVID-19, with three men dying from the illness.
Numerous individuals detained at Stewart, like Luis, face prolonged mandatory detention in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, while their immigration cases are pending. Filing habeas actions in federal court to obtain release or a bond hearing is often these individuals’ only way of obtaining a chance at freedom. We are fortunate to have favorable legal precedent on prolonged detention habeas claims for immigrants in Virginia and Maryland detention facilities but prior to Luis’s habeas action, that was not the case in the Middle District of Georgia, where Stewart is located. The lack of caselaw on the issue left numerous individuals at Stewart, the vast majority of them unrepresented by counsel, with no meaningful opportunity to seek release.
Although he won his habeas case, Luis remains detained at Stewart. The district court judge ordered that Luis bear the burden of establishing entitlement to bond at his bond hearing, rather than placing the burden of justifying detention on the government. Despite Luis’s lack of violent criminal history, the Immigration Judge deemed him a danger to the community and denied him bond. However, the fight is not over. In the face of this disappointing loss, Luis continues to litigate his merits case and is hopeful that the decision in his habeas case will pave the way for many others detained at Stewart.
There is still much room for progress in these types of cases in the Middle District of Georgia. Legal service providers should continue to represent and assist individuals facing prolonged mandatory detention pending removal proceedings in habeas actions, arguing that the burden should be on the government to justify detention at a bond hearing remedying unconstitutionally prolonged detention. Perhaps these arguments will gain traction through repetition before different district court judges. Similarly, as these cases continue to be brought, Immigration Judges at Stewart Immigration Court will conduct more bond hearings for individuals previously subjected to mandatory detention because of their criminal history. Perhaps in some of these cases, the Immigration Judges will decline to reduce individuals to their criminal history and recognize their rehabilitation. Such change may be slow and difficult in the Deep South but it is certainly worth fighting for.
CAIR Coalition’s Immigration Impact Lab thanks its former Legal Intern Austin Rose for his assistance in drafting the habeas petition.
* Name changed to protect client’s identity.
Blog Post by Sam Hsieh, Immigration Impact Lab Senior Attorney