More than 350 immigrant detainees in the Los Angeles area have been held behind bars longer than six months while fighting deportation, according to a list recently released by the federal government.
The list of names was turned over to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California late last month as part of a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The ACLU is battling for the right of detainees held for six months or more to have hearings on whether they can be released from custody while their cases are pending.
The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the lawsuit. The department opposed releasing the names but was ordered to do so by a federal judge. Its lawyers are continuing to oppose the bond hearings.
Ahilan Arulanantham, who directs the immigrants' rights and national security program for the ACLU of Southern California, said he was shocked that so many immigrants were being held in detention for longer than six months.
"That number just dwarfs the number we expected," he said.
There are about 1,400 immigrant detainees in the area. There is generally no limit on the length of time immigrants are detained as long as their cases are not yet resolved. In addition, few detainees are guaranteed a right to a bond hearing.
The team of attorneys is sending letters to its clients. Many of the class members are seeking asylum and some have been held for years. At least 30% were never represented by an attorney, Arulanantham said.
Arulanantham, who filed the suit along with the Stanford Immigrants' Rights Clinic and the law firm of Sidley and Austin, said lawyers chose the six-month mark based on other case law on detention and due process rights.
One of the class members, Damdin Borjgin, a Mongolian man seeking asylum in the United States, has been in custody at Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster since November 2007. Borjgin said he has never had a hearing to see if he would be eligible for release.
"I didn't think I would be locked up in the jail for this much time," Borjgin said through an interpreter in a recent interview. "I am living here as a prisoner. My rights are limited."
Borjgin, 49, first came to the United States in 1999 on a visitor's visa, overstayed that visa and then returned to his native country in 2007 because his father was ill. Borjgin said he discovered possible corruption at the national bank where he worked and reported it to police. As a result, Borjgin said, he was detained and pressured to withdraw the case because it was "damaging the reputation of a high-ranking political official."
Afraid for his safety, he said he obtained a false passport and came to the United States, where he was detained at Los Angeles International Airport and taken to the detention center.
Borjgin, who has a wife and two grown children in Mongolia, said he cannot return to his native country. "It's a danger to my life," he said.
Borjgin, who did not have an attorney, lost his case in Immigration Court and at the Board of Immigration Appeals. The case now is pending in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Arulanantham said Borjgin should be entitled to a hearing and released from detention because he has not committed a crime and is not a flight risk or a danger to the community. Instead, he said, the government could require him to wear an electronic ankle bracelet or have him regularly check in with immigration officials.
Currently, only certain immigrant detainees are entitled to bond hearings. If foreigners are arrested upon arrival in the United States, they cannot request a bond hearing. Detainees who have committed certain crimes or who have lost their cases and have final orders of deportation are also not eligible for bond hearings. Detainees who cannot be deported within six months of the conclusion of the case may be entitled to be released.
Arulanantham said that the irony is that under the revamped detention system, Borjgin might have never been placed behind bars in the first place. Immigration officials now release arriving asylum seekers from detention if they have a credible fear of persecution, prove their identity and pose neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.
"ICE's detention capacity is not unlimited," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We want to ensure we're using our detention resources to keep criminals and other dangerous aliens in custody while we seek their removal from the country."
The change was part of an overhaul of the detention system announced last year. John Morton, the chief of the immigration agency, said he would make immigration detention less reliant on prisons and jails and more specifically designed for civil detainees.
Since the announcement, the agency has reduced the number of detention facilities nationwide from 341 to 270 and canceled contracts at 10 sites because of reported problems. Visitation, recreation and legal access also have been expanded at more than 20 facilities.