In a decision hailed by civil rights advocates, a federal judge in Boston ruled last week that the way authorities handle detention hearings in Boston immigration court violates due process under the Constitution.
Judge Patti B. Saris issued the ruling on Wednesday in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by ACLU chapters in Massachusetts and New Hampshire on behalf of three immigrants who were detained after allegedly flawed hearings.
Saris ruled that the government must prove an immigrant’s “dangerousness by clear and convincing evidence or risk of flight” and that placing the burden of proof on detainees at bond hearings violates due process.
The ruling applies to the Boston immigration court, which serves Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
According to the ACLU of Massachusetts, the ruling found that a New England class of immigrants are entitled to bond hearings “at which the government bears the burden of justifying an immigrant’s detention, and at which the immigration court must consider someone’s ability to pay when setting a bond amount.”
US Attorney General William Barr and the US Department of Justice are named as defendants in the suit. That agency declined to comment on the case on Friday. A message left with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement was not returned.
Previously, the government argued that a final judgment for the plaintiffs in a class-action suit would have “severe ramifications on immigration procedures.” The government opposed certification of the lawsuit as a class action and argued that due-process claims don’t apply.
The plaintiffs in the case include Gilberto Pereira Brito, a citizen of Brazil who was arrested by ICE at his Brockton home in early March. In early April, he received a bond hearing in Boston immigration court, where “he was required to prove that he is not a danger or a flight risk in order to be released from custody,” according to court filings.
According to court documents, Pereira Brito, a father of three, is the sole provider of his family. The judge’s order stated that other than his March arrest by ICE, Pereira Brito “had not been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of any crimes since May 2009.”
Another plaintiff Florentin Avila Lucas, a citizen of Guatemala who has worked at a New Hampshire dairy farm since 2006, was arrested by Customs and Border patrol agents outside a thrift store in Lebanon, N.H., in March.
At a May bond hearing in Boston immigration court, Avila Lucas presented evidence that he had no criminal history but a judge denied him bond because he “failed to meet his burden of proof to show that he is not a danger or flight risk,” according to Saris’ order.
A third plaintiff, Jacky Celicourt, a citizen of Haiti, was arrested by ICE in January, on the same day he pleaded guilty to the theft of a pair of headphones that cost $5.99. He worked in construction and roofing in New Hampshire, according to court documents.
“Previously, Celicourt had been politically active in Haiti but was forced to flee after being attacked by armed men,” read Saris’ order. “Based on this experience, he was applying for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture.”
According to the judge’s order, ICE released Pereira Brito, Avila Lucas, and Celicourt from detention following the filing of the lawsuit.
Immigration advocates were quick to praise the ruling on Friday.
Eva Millona, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, called the ruling a “huge victory for civil rights protection.”
“Detention should be used as a last resort applied to those who pose threats and those who are here to cause us harm,” she said. “Detention shouldn’t be the norm for all civil violations.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said Saris’ ruling “affirms that the government’s approach to detention is contrary to common sense and our fundamental values.”
“In America, liberty should be the norm for everyone — and detention the last resort,” said Rose in a statement.
SangYeob Kim, immigration staff attorney at the ACLU of New Hampshire, said the suit “raised an alarming issue where due process was being denied to those that have the most difficulty accessing counsel and navigating the American immigration system.”
Between Nov. 1, 2018, and May 7, 2019, Boston immigration courts held bond hearings for 700 immigrants and immigration courts in Hartford held bond hearings for 77 immigrants, according to the ruling.
Judges issued decisions after 651 of those hearings, denying release on bond in about 41 percent of the cases, Saris wrote.
The average bond amount set during that period was $6,302 and $28,700 in the Boston and Hartford immigration courts, respectively, according to the order.