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Class-Action Suit Seeks Release of Detainees

ACLU says U.S. agency is ignoring a Supreme Court ruling against holding immigrants awaiting deportation for more than six months.

October 10, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

Years after he was stabbed in the back of the head on a bus, the mob violence and church burnings in his native Indonesia became too much for Raymond Soeoth.

So he and his wife, Cindy, flew to California in 1999 and applied for asylum in the United States, claiming that as Chinese Christians they had been persecuted by their country's Muslim majority. As their case wended through the courts, Soeoth scraped together a new life in Riverside, working as a home nurse, gas station attendant and Super Shuttle driver.

Within five years, they owned a five-bedroom home in Colton and a cellphone business in a quiet strip mall near UC Riverside.

But that's all gone now. Soeoth's asylum claim was denied, and for two years he has been locked up at the San Pedro Detention Facility on Terminal Island while his appeal winds through the system.

Now, in a class-action lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Los Angeles charges that Immigration and Customs Enforcement routinely ignores a Supreme Court decision that immigrants cannot be held longer than six months without being given a chance to be freed on bond.

Last week, the civil liberties group asked U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter to order the immediate release of four plaintiffs named in the suit, including Soeoth, 38. Two others were recently released.

"These people have been kept away from their families, their communities and their lives for years ... without even a hearing to determine if their prolonged detention is justified," said ACLU staff attorney Ahilan Arulanantham.

One of the plaintiffs, an Ecuadorean man whose 9-year-old daughter is a U.S. citizen, has been detained for nearly four years.

Arulanantham says immigration officials have purposely avoided defending their policy, releasing detainees whose attorneys file court challenges, while hanging on to those without petitions pending.

"We've had about 12 let go ..." he said as he opened an e-mail. "Oh, my God, Rudolph Stepanian just got released.... Make that 13."

Stepanian, an Armenian Christian who came to the United States from his native Iran 30 years ago, was the second of the original six plaintiffs in the lawsuit to be released. He had been detained 10 months, even though the government conceded he could not be deported to Iran, according to the lawsuit.

Arulanantham suspects that dozens of immigrants are similarly in limbo in Southern California alone. The ACLU included as plaintiffs unknown detainees in the same circumstances to force the issue to a hearing and prevent the immigration agency from simply releasing named petitioners and moving to dismiss the case as moot.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Zadvydas vs. Davis that an immigrant awaiting deportation could not be held in detention longer than six months if "there is no significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future." Countries with poor diplomatic relations with the United States generally will not take back deported immigrants.

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency, said the ruling does not apply to immigrants who are fighting their deportation. The agency, by law, is required to detain immigrants convicted of certain felonies or considered to be flight risks or threats to public safety or national security, Kice said.

Arulanantham of the ACLU countered that Justice Stephen Breyer's majority opinion applies to a much broader group of immigrants and cited the statement that "indefinite detention of an alien would raise a serious constitutional problem."

As for his clients, he noted that two of them, Ebrahim Mussa and John Rasheed, were not fighting their deportation. The government is prolonging a legal fight by appealing judges' rulings, which ordered them set free because they might be tortured in their homelands, he said.

And two who were released, Mussa and Stepanian, were convicted of crimes, while two in detention, Soeoth and Amadou Lamine Diouf, were not, he said.

Niels Frenzen, director of the USC Law Immigration Clinic, said he doubted that the Supreme Court decision covered all detained immigrants. "I think the court was probably looking at people whose appeals were completed," he said.

However, if the immigration agency "is cutting people loose just because the case is filed," perhaps its lawyers might have concluded the ruling does apply to these immigrants, he added.

All of this might seem arcane. But for Diouf, a Senegalese immigrant, it has meant seeing his wife only through the glass partition of a visitor's booth on Terminal Island for 18 months.

Diouf overstayed a student visa. He was given a date by which he must depart, but got married in the interim to "his longtime American fiancee," according to the lawsuit. He asked his attorney to file a motion to reopen his case. The attorney did not. Diouf was arrested at his home in Hawthorne in March 2005 and has been detained ever since.

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