The first major case that will include Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice may very well be Nielsen v. Preap, a class-action suit against Homeland Security to determine if the Trump regime can simply deny bond hearings to those who ICE have detained for deportation because of crimes they committed years, and sometimes decades ago.
Nielsen is a class action brought by a group of immigrants in the Ninth Circuit who have been or are being detained under 8 U.S.C. § 1226, a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That section authorizes federal authorities to detain any alien who may be subject to “removal”—the technical term for deportation. That term covers a lot of immigrants—border-crossers arrested after entering the U.S. illegally, tourists or students who have overstayed their visas, and lawful permanent residents who have committed certain crimes.
The statute creates two classes of “removable” aliens—first, ordinary detainees who haven’t committed crimes but are facing removal on other grounds and, second, “criminal aliens” facing removal because of criminal convictions.
Once ordinary aliens are detained for removal, they face three different legal tests: First will be a “bond hearing,” at which they can try to convince an immigration judge that they can be safely released, and will show up for their deportation hearing. They can put on evidence of their community, and family members can attend to give their support. If they get bond, they can go back to their lives until their next hearing. Next, whether they get bond or not, they receive a “removal hearing” at which they can try to show that they are not “removable” after all. If they win there, they are free to go. But even if they fail in that effort, they can still to try to show that they are eligible for what is called “cancellation of removal”—for example, because they have been lawfully present in the U.S. for years and have family ties here, or because deportation would subject them to danger in their country of origin. If the immigrant can prove that claim, immigration authorities have the discretion to allow him or her to remain and “adjust” to legal status.
But go back to the beginning—the bond hearing. Some “criminal aliens” have been convicted of certain specified statutory crimes (such as drug or firearms offenses, sex offenses, terrorism or espionage, or crimes of “moral turpitude”). For this “criminal alien” group, the statute says that “when the alien is released” from imprisonment, the government “shall take [him or her] into custody.” These immigrants get no bond hearing; they must be held in detention until their cases are resolved. They can still challenge removal; they can still ask for cancellation; but they must remain behind bars for the months or even years those proceedings can take.
This is the issue in Nielsen v. Preap: It is not whether authorities can detain these aliens—they can. But does the statute really deny bond hearings to all of them—longtime residents of the U.S. who were convicted of minor offenses 5, 10, 15 or more years ago? What if a person has long ago been released and has returned to a community, established a family and put down roots, and lived a blameless life since that brush with the law? In other words, what if the immigrant would otherwise be a prime candidate for bond?
These aliens can be detained and deported. There is no question that ICE agents can show up at their homes, arrest them, and hold them for removal proceedings. But does the “when” language mean they don’t get a bond hearing? If a non-citizen has left prison and established a new life, did Congress in writing the statute really mean to deny that person the chance to show an immigration court that he or she will show up for a removal hearing, the way other “noncriminal” aliens can?
And that’s where the meaning of the word “when” comes in.
This is a class action case on behalf of immigrants, many of whom served or are serving sentences, or even probation, for minor offenses. One of the lead plaintiffs, Mony Preap, was born to Cambodian parents in a refugee camp; he has lived lawfully in the U.S. since 1981. In 2006, he was convicted on two misdemeanor counts of possessing marijuana—an offense that would have subjected him to mandatory detention. However, immigration authorities did not arrest him then. Instead, he returned to his community and was convicted of battery—which does not trigger the mandatory detention statute. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at that point took him to a detention center, and he was denied a bond hearing. He was eventually able to show an immigration judge that he was eligible for “cancellation,” and so he has been released.
Another plaintiff, Eduardo Vega Padilla, arrived as a toddler and has been a lawful resident for 52 years; his six grandchildren are all U.S. citizens. He was convicted of controlled-substance offenses in 1997 and 1999 and placed on probation; while he was serving that sentence, he was convicted of possessing an unloaded pistol, then released in 2002. In 2013, ice agents arrested him at his home. Because of the drug offense, ice denied him a bond hearing until a district court ordered them to provide one—at which point he won release.
Representing all immigrants arrested under similar circumstances, the plaintiffs argue that, if ICE wants to detain an immigrant without hope of bail, it must detain him or her at the moment of release; any other reading of the “when” in the statute, they say, allows authorities to wait years, and then detain immigrants long after they have successfully returned to their lives. Congress cannot have intended that.
That reading is something like “when” in this sentence: “When you have completed the quiz, turn in your paper and pencil and exit quietly.” The government’s reading might seem more like this chestnut: “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
Effectively, the Trump regime wants the power of indefinite detainment for deportable aliens, even the ones who have been in the country for decades, living peaceful lives. It's a necessary step to mass roundups of undocumented immigrants that are surely coming just as soon as SCOTUS gives the green light.
Brett Kavanaugh will get to hear such a case next week where he would most certainly be the fifth vote to allow ICE such broad powers.
No rest for the wicked, it seems.