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California and the West

Supreme Court Offers Little Support for L.A. Eight

Immigration: Rehnquist, Scalia say they are concerned about immigrants using the system to stall deportations. Case involves Palestinian activists.

November 05, 1998|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court got its first look Wednesday at the 1996 immigration reform law and its strict new provisions that virtually close the courthouse door to immigrants facing deportation.

And the court's leading conservatives, at least, appeared to like what they saw.

"Deportees gain by stalling, by stringing out these cases endlessly," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "It's gaming the system."

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist agreed. "Congress was certainly concerned about stringing these cases out, which is what you are doing here."

They were speaking to a lawyer for eight Palestinian activists from Los Angeles who have been fighting deportation for 11 years.

The plight of the "L.A. Eight" has gained wide support among human rights activists. They say the Palestinians have been targeted for their political views and deserve at minimum the right to go to court to defend themselves.

Repeatedly, federal judges in California have come to their aid and blocked the deportation process from moving forward.

But the Supreme Court is a much friendlier forum for the government, and the case of the L.A. Eight may well lead to a far-reaching ruling that restricts the rights of immigrants.

In 1987, the Immigration and Naturalization Service filed charges to remove the eight immigrants on the grounds that they were aiding a known terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. FBI agents cited a tape recording of a fund-raising dinner in Glendale on which Khader Musa Hamide, a lead plaintiff, is quoted as saying that the money collected would go to "the combatants in Lebanon and on the West Bank. The revolution requires support."

The INS noted that the PFLP had taken credit for airline hijackings, assassinations and bombings in the Middle East.

But the Los Angeles Palestinians said they were involved solely in peaceful activities, such as selling magazines, that helped finance day care centers, schools, youth clubs and scholarships.

They alleged that they were being singled out for prosecution because they supported an unpopular organization.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the immigrants. The Constitution outlaws "guilt by association," the appeals court said. "Targeting individuals because of activities such as fund-raising is impermissible," it added, unless it can be shown that the immigrants intended to support terrorism.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, two key issues were raised:

First, did Congress in 1996 intend to close the courthouse door to any person who is targeted for deportation, at least until after a final deportation order is handed down?

And if so, does the Constitution allow the government to close the courts to claims involving basic rights?

On the first point, the law is clear, government lawyers say. The law says, "No court shall have jurisdiction to hear any cause or claim by or on behalf of any" immigrant who faces deportation, before a final order is issued.

Congress was determined to "streamline the [deportation] process," Assistant Solicitor Gen. Malcolm L. Stewart told the justices during Wednesday's oral arguments.

Did this mean that the immigrants were barred from going to court to claim a violation of their constitutional rights? asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Not quite, Stewart responded. At the end of the process, a person facing deportation can challenge the final order in a U.S. court of appeals, he said. "There is no constitutional right to immediate adjudication of 1st Amendment claims," he added.

Georgetown University law professor David D. Cole, defending the Palestinians, argued that justice delayed is justice denied. If immigrants cannot go to court at the beginning of the deportation process, they will be unable to gather the evidence to show that the government has unfairly targeted them, he said.

"The government wants to get rid of them [Palestinians] based on their political activities. The federal courts should be open to hear those claims," Cole said.

For much of the argument, the justices and the lawyers appeared confused. They took turns reading portions of the old and new immigration laws.

"Does Section 1242 refer back to Section 309 or 306?" one justice asked in a typical query.

But the chief justice and Scalia seemed determined to uphold the new law. Several other justices indicated that they were inclined to do so as well, so long as the immigrants' constitutional claims could be heard at the end of the process.

A ruling in the case (Reno vs. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 97-1252) is expected early next year.

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