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Second Circuit Ruling in Post-9/11 Immigration Detention Case

by Matt Clarke

On December 18, 2009, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in a federal class-action suit brought by illegal immigrants arrested in sweeps following the 9/11 attacks and incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in New York City. The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of length-of-detention claims, but vacated its denial of motions to dismiss the plaintiffs’ conditions-of-confinement claims.

This civil rights action was filed in U.S. District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by immigration detainees who claimed the government had mistreated them and increased their length of detention prior to being deported because it believed they were Arab or Muslim. The plaintiffs admitted they were in the U.S. illegally and subject to deportation.

The defendants included high-ranking members of the Bush administration – the former Attorney General, FBI Director and INS Commissioner, as well as MDC officials and guards. The administration officials and four high-ranking MDC defendants filed motions to dismiss some of the plaintiffs’ claims on grounds that included qualified immunity and failure to state a claim. The district court denied the motions as to the conditions-of-confinement claims, but granted the motions on the length-of-detention claims. Both sides appealed.

The Second Circuit first denied the plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss the appeals due to a settlement between the defendants and five named plaintiffs, holding that the settlement, which came after oral argument, did not moot the appeals.

The appellate court noted that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions required a “heightened pleading standard in those contexts where factual amplification is needed to render a claim plausible.” However, the district court’s decision denying the motions to dismiss the conditions-of-confinement claims predated the new standard, and had used an earlier standard of review – that a claim should not be dismissed unless it appears beyond doubt that no set of facts can be proven which would entitle the plaintiff to relief.

Therefore, the Second Circuit held the district court’s decision to deny the motions to dismiss the conditions-of-confinement claims should be vacated and the case returned to the lower court for a new evaluation based on the current standard of review.

The Court of Appeals noted that although the removal period for persons illegally in the U.S. is defined as 90 days in federal statutes, the Supreme Court had accorded a presumption of reasonableness to six months’ detention. Periods of detention in excess of six months are only unreasonable if there is no significant likelihood of deportation in the reasonably foreseeable future. However, only two of the plaintiffs were held over six months, and neither was held over seven months. Both had settled their claims and the remaining plaintiffs did not plead that there was no significant likelihood of deportation in the reasonably foreseeable future.

Further, the plaintiffs could point to no authority clearly establishing a due process right to prompt deportation or an equal protection right to be free of selective enforcement of immigration laws. The administration was not required to reveal its “real reasons” for deeming nationals of a specific foreign country to be a security threat.

All of the plaintiffs were in the U.S. illegally and thus were legally being detained. Therefore, the district court did not err in dismissing the length-of-detention claims on the basis of either qualified immunity or failure to state a claim. The district court’s judgment was affirmed in part and vacated in part, and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Turkmen v. Ashcroft, 589 F.3d 542 (2d Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Turkmen v. Ashcroft