ACLU lawsuit fights mandatory jail time for immigration detainees
on November 15, 2012 at 8:24 PM, updated November 16, 2012 at 6:25 AM
The 53-year-old Jamaica native, now a legal U.S. resident, has little hope of bail, but Gayle doesn't face murder or assault charges, and his criminal history is not a violent one.
In 1995, police allege, Gayle was convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana. In April, nearly 17 years later, he opened his front door to find officials from the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency waiting for him.
He was under arrest, they said, and facing deportation — because of the marijuana conviction.
Gayle’s residency status, arrest and incarceration are recounted in a complaint filed in New Jersey today that could have national implications.
An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit is challenging the federal government’s practice of mandatory incarceration for immigration detainees. The ACLU claims the government unnecessarily incarcerates deportation candidates even if they are documented citizens and pose no flight risk or threat.
"It doesn’t make any sense," said Michael Tan, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights project. "It’s contrary to the constitution to lock people up who very well could have a right to be here."
A spokeswoman for ICE said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
Tan said there are hundreds of federal detainees like Gayle, immigrants who face deportation because of prior criminal offenses and remain in custody at local detention centers. Many of these inmates possess green cards or other forms of documentation verifying their residence, and most are long-term U.S. residents with full-time jobs and a "strong claim" to remain in the country, Tan said.
Gayle, a Brooklyn resident, was employed. He is divorced with two daughters and grandchildren.
The lawsuit also argues ICE routinely misinforms immigration detainees of their right to contest mandatory detention, leaving them little chance of returning home until their deportation proceedings are completed, which could take months or years. The form ICE uses to notify deportation candidates tells detainees they "may not request a review" by an immigration judge, which the ACLU argues is factually incorrect.
While today's lawsuit is seeking relief only for the approximately 400 such detainees in New Jersey, Tan said further lawsuits are possible if President Obama’s administration does not act.
"This is the first case on this issue, I think we’re waiting to see how the government deals with it," he said. "From our perspective there is nothing that stops the administration from ending this practice now, of subjecting people like Mr. Gayle to unlawful incarceration."
ICE’s detainment practices also came under fire when Detention Watch Now, a national advocacy group, called on Obama to stop housing federal detainees in what it considered the 10 worst immigration detainment facilities in the country. One New Jersey prison, the Hudson County Correctional Facility, was on the list.
In the meantime, relatives of people like Gayle will simply have to wait and wonder about their loved ones.
"A very important person is missing from their lives," Tan said of Gayle’s grandchildren. "They notice that Mr. Gayle isn’t there at the end of the school day."