A man at the center of an immigrants-rights case that was heard by the state Supreme Judicial Court in April has been released from federal custody after civil liberties advocates challenged his prolonged detention for immigration violations.
Sreynuon Lunn, 32, who was born to Cambodian parents in a refugee camp in Thailand, had been in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since Feb. 6 as authorities tried to deport him to Cambodia.
Cambodian officials do not consider him a citizen of that country and will not allow him to enter.
Thai officials say he is not a citizen of their country, either, because he was born in a refugee camp, which left Lunn in limbo in federal custody as the authorities sought to obtain travel documents for him.
He was released from the Suffolk County jail, which had been holding him on behalf of ICE, without explanation on Thursday, one of his lawyers said.
A spokesman for ICE would not comment because the case is under pending litigation.
Lawyers for Lunn filed a habeas petition in federal court in Boston on Monday seeking his release, saying authorities could not punish him in jail while they try to resolve his status.
Lunn has been convicted of crimes including breaking and entering, and immigration officials have tried to deport him three previous times since 2008.
But lawyers for Lunn had argued that the failure to deport him in the past demonstrated he would not be removed in the foreseeable future, so it would be unlawful to keep him detained.
“Immigration detention is not supposed to be punishment. If the government cannot deport Mr. Lunn, it has to let him go,” said Matthew Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. He said lawyers will seek a judicial order that ICE not detain Lunn again unless it believes he can be deported, so the case will continue in federal court.
Segal would not comment on what alternatives ICE officials might have, but added that “the answer for every societal problem isn’t to lock people in cages.”
The case highlights the challenges immigration officials face in seeking to deport someone who cannot be returned to their home country. The Globe has reported that ICE, under legal obligation to free people who cannot be deported, has secretly released hundreds of criminals back to local communities, only to see them commit more crimes.
President Trump campaigned on a promise to force countries to take back their nationals who are deported from the United States.
Lunn was told by ICE officials in an April 25 review of his case that they were working to get the necessary paperwork to deport him.
Lunn’s habeas request was based on a US Supreme Court decision that immigration officials cannot indefinitely hold someone if their native country will not allow them to return, even if that person has been convicted of a crime.
Immigration officials have about 90 days to deport someone who has a final removal order before the person is entitled to due process rights to be released.
Lunn was also the center of a separate case before the state’s highest court in April, challenging local law enforcement officials’ ability to detain someone solely because of a request from ICE.
The federal agency often asks local police and the courts to hold someone who could be deported.
But immigration violations are civil offenses, and Lunn’s lawyers questioned whether state authorities can detain someone who has not been accused of a crime without due process, such as the right to a hearing.
Lunn had been transferred by a state court official to ICE custody after charges of unarmed robbery that he faced were dismissed, in spite of his lawyer’s request that he be released. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, which is pending, could influence how local law enforcement officials interact with federal immigration authorities.
Lunn, who was granted permanent US residency in September 1985, when he was 7 months old, was first detained for deportation in 2008.
Because Cambodia and Thailand said they would not issue travel documents, he was released seven months later.
He was again detained in 2012 and held for 45 days, only to be released because the countries would not issue documents that would allow him to be deported there.
The next year, he was detained for another 40 days and was later released.