Originally published at ACLU of Northern California
By Julia Mass and Jenny Zhao
Bertha Mejia is a 53-year-old grandmother who fled political violence
and sexual abuse in her native El Salvador as a girl. She has four U.S.
citizen children and is the primary caretaker for her 9-year-old
grandson, Pablo. The victim of rape at the hands of her employer, Ms.
Mejia has a strong case for a "U-visa," a type of visa for victims of
crime who cooperate with law enforcement. The police have already
certified that Ms. Mejia is a victim who has assisted the police in
apprehending the perpetrator.
Unfortunately, Ms. Mejia also has a shoplifting problem. She began
stealing food as a child to feed her brothers and sisters. She has had a
series of minor offenses, mostly related to stealing food items, and
was diagnosed with kleptomania in 2011. Ms. Mejia has no violent
criminal history and has strong claims for legal immigration status, yet
she has spent the last 16 months in immigration detention solely based
on her shoplifting offenses. Her detention is based on a 1996 law that
purports to authorize prolonged mandatory detention during immigration
proceedings even for individuals who pose no threat to public safety.
Today, the ACLU of Northern California, along with Ms. Mejia's
immigration attorney Rosy Cho, filed a petition for a writ of habeas
corpus, seeking Ms. Mejia's release. We argue that Congress could not
have authorized prolonged detention based only on a record that includes
a crime of "moral turpitude" (like shoplifting or writing a bad check),
without requiring the government to convince a neutral judge that
prolonged detention is justified because the detainee poses a danger to
the community or is a flight risk.
Ms. Mejia has no violent criminal history and poses no danger to the
community. Her loved ones all live in the vicinity of where her
immigration court proceedings are held. While her application for the
U-visa is pending, Ms. Mejia has every reason to appear at all court
hearings and pursue immigration relief. And yet, Immigration and Customs
Enforcement, which has the discretion to release her with any
conditions that they find suitable, such as bond or electronic
monitoring, refuses to do so. The immigration judge who presides over
her case has ruled that he has no authority to release her and so Bertha
Mejia languishes in the Yuba County Jail.
Ms. Mejia is only one of many immigrants confined in an irrational
detention system. On any given day, over 30,000 immigrants are locked up
in facilities around the country as they fight their deportation cases.
Many are subject to mandatory detention and are denied even a hearing
before an immigration judge to determine whether their detention is
justified. This overuse of incarceration not only shatters immigrant
families, but also squanders taxpayer money.
As almost everyone acknowledges, our immigration system is in need of
reform. In addition to providing a pathway toward citizenship to the
many who already contribute to our culture and communities, reform must
also include common sense solutions to our current unconstitutional,
inhumane, and wasteful immigration detention practices.
Julia Mass is a Staff Attorney at the ACLU-NC. Follow her on Twitter @MassJulia. Jenny Zhao is the Liman Public Interest Fellow at ACLU-NC.