Thursday, June 15, 2006

Immigrants are out of luck

A judge in Brooklyn ruled this week that the government can hold noncitizens indefinitely for a variety of reasons.

A federal judge in Brooklyn ruled yesterday that the government has wide latitude under immigration law to detain noncitizens on the basis of religion, race or national origin, and to hold them indefinitely without explanation. The ruling came in a class-action lawsuit by Muslim immigrants detained after 9/11, and it dismissed several key claims the detainees had made against the government.

It's true that noncitizens have fewer rights than citizens, and can be rounded up for infractions that wouldn't even justify fining a citizen. That's life; they are guests in our country, and guests can be held to higher standards or kicked out on a whim.

But for our own sakes we should have some sort of standard for such punishments. They should not be arbitrary, or subject to economic, religious or racial prejudice.

Where I have a major problem is the "hold them indefinitely" part. If we're going to take away someone's freedom, it's incumbent on us to process them as quickly as possible. Noncitizens deserve "speedy trial" protections -- or their administrative equivalent -- just as citizens do.

At least the judge said it's not okay to abuse them while they're being held indefinitely:

But the judge, John Gleeson of United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, allowed the lawsuit to continue on other claims, mostly that the conditions of confinement were abusive and unconstitutional. Judge Gleeson's decision requires top federal officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, to answer to those accusations under oath.

That's a start, I guess.

Attorneys for the immigrants vow to appeal the ruling. But I think the judge is correct on the law, even if higher courts narrow its applicability. That means any remedy will ultimately rest with Congress -- and the mood there is not very receptive to noncitizen rights at the moment.

It's too bad that, in the name of security, we appear to be abandoning basic principles of fairness, humanity and justice. Noncitizens may not have as many rights as citizens, but it is still incumbent on us to treat them right -- because that is the American thing to do.

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