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'Prove I should be in jail:' Immigrants sue in Central Pa

Written by Joel Shannon/York Daily Record | Mar 7, 2017 7:03 AM
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(Undated) -- At some of the highest rates in the nation, immigrants detained in Central Pennsylvania are suing to challenge their detention.

Fueled by an evolving interpretation of immigration law by courts across the country, the Middle District of Pennsylvania has laid out an increasingly clear path for immigrants to challenge lengthy detentions for several years.

A Syracuse University report details a 58 percent national spike in lawsuits filed by non-citizens between January 2016 and January 2017. These suits, called habeas corpus filings, challenge the government to prove a person should continue to be detained.

According to York-based immigration lawyer Daniel Pell, the people being detained have been jailed for more than six months. But sometimes they have been held for years.

The report, titled "Suits Challenging Confinement of Noncitizens Jump," says since October 2014, Central Pennsylvania's Middle District Court has had the second-highest number of these cases in the nation, and the second-highest per capita rate of such challenges.

The district includes Adams, Franklin, Fulton, Lebanon and York counties, in addition to 28 others.

Who are these immigrants and why are they being detained?

Immigrants suing for their release can be imprisoned for a number of reasons -- including committing crimes. They might be undocumented or documented.

Pell said in his experience, many who sue for their release are "arriving aliens" -- a legal term that includes many who are seeking asylum in the U.S.

Longstanding U.S. policy holds that while it is not illegal to request asylum at the border, asylum seekers are detained until their claims are reviewed.

"Remember, a lot of these folks haven't committed any crimes and they're sitting in jail" for months or years, said Pell.

Some immigrants who file suit are in the process of being deported. The paperwork needed to complete deportation -- including travel documents -- is a common reason for lengthy detention, Pell explained.

Challenging detainment is a step an immigrant can take if they have been in prison a lengthy amount of time, but a favorable ruling does not guarantee release and often results in a separate bond hearing.

Why are the numbers high in Central Pa.?

The publishers of the study and local attorneys were cautious about drawing conclusions, but two explanations may provide insight.

The first: Because those detained in Central Pennsylvania weren't necessarily taken into custody in Central Pennsylvania, the report may mostly reflect the number and type of prisons in the region.

"Where these types of suits are filed in large part reflects where particular detention facilities are located," the TRAC study notes.

And, as Pell mused, there are "a bunch of prisons in Central Pa."

A second possible explanation: The Middle District may also have a high number of cases because a 2015 case from the region gives immigrants a more clear legal path to challenge their detention.

The case sets precedent in the Third Circuit Court, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands, explained Christina Powers, Managing Attorney of Detained Programs for the Pennsylvania Immigrant Resource Center.

New Jersey was also cited in the TRAC report for its high number of lawsuits.

It's also important to separate the high number of Central Pennsylvania cases -- which are tracked by the study over the course of years -- with the recent national trend -- which has been spiking only in recent months.

The national upswing is significant enough that it drew the attention of Prof. Susan Long, the Co-Director of TRAC at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse. As a researcher, she wondered, "What's the change here?"​

Why are suits spiking nationally?

Although the report comes as the Trump administration maintains a hard line on immigration policy, leading to an uptick of immigrants in Central Pennsylvania seeking information about their rights, Pell attributes the spike to the judicial branch -- not Trump's policies.

A likely cause of the spike nationally according to Pell: A "growing consensus" among judges about the length of time immigrants can be detained before the detainment can be challenged.

Just as the Middle District had a precedent-setting case on this issue in 2015, recent court decisions nationally are giving immigrants increasingly stable ground to question lengthy detentions, which can last as little as six months or as long as years.

Pell says that an upcoming Supreme Court case may provide national clarity on the legal rights of immigrants as it relates to lengthy detentions.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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