July 21, 2010

For Those Deported, Court Rulings Come Too Late

Under the ruling last month, which echoed decisions by four federal circuit courts, including the one covering New York, legal residents with minor drug convictions are eligible to have an immigration judge weigh their offenses against other factors in their lives and decide whether to let them stay.

But deportees who were denied such a hearing have no means to get one now. The Board of Immigration Appeals says it has no jurisdiction over any case after deportation. Government regulations prohibit any motion to reopen the case of someone who has left the country; judicial circuits are divided over that interpretation of immigration law, and a request that the Supreme Court consider the matter is pending.

The Obama administration, which is on track to deport a record 400,000 people this fiscal year, according to government statistics, has shown no eagerness to open the door. Now two dozen legal rights groups are calling for a process that would let immigrants reopen their cases under the ruling last month.

“American principles of justice — fairness, due process and discretion — require that these immigrants now receive their day in court,” the groups wrote in a June 18 letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security.

The Justice Department referred questions about the letter to the Department of Homeland Security, where a spokesman, Matthew Chandler, declined to comment on the issues it raised.

But Jan Ting, a Temple University Law School professor and a former assistant immigration commissioner, called the idea of letting deportees return for hearings “far-fetched,” adding, “The federal government has already incurred significant costs in executing the removals of these individuals in a procedure that was certainly legal at the time.”

No one knows just how many cases could be affected, but analyses by state and federal public defenders’ associations suggest they could number several thousand. More than 34,000 noncitizens were deported for drug-related offenses in 2008; in New York alone, from 1995 to 2004 more than 258,000 citizens and noncitizens served little or no jail time for misdemeanor possession convictions.

Among the most compelling cases for redress, the advocates say, are those of New Yorkers who were transferred by immigration officials to detention centers in Louisiana and Texas. There, the detainees came under the jurisdiction of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which approved the automatic deportations long after the Second Circuit, which includes New York, had rejected them.

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