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Seattle immigrant rights group headed to the U.S. Supreme Court

Seven people -- two men in suits and five women -- stand outside revolving doors. A balding white man is at center.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
Matt Adams, center, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, leaves the U.S. Courthouse in Seattle with others after a hearing on asylum seekers in 2019.

A prominent immigrant rights nonprofit based in Seattle is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Five years ago, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of people detained in Washington state who had previously been deported but who returned to the U.S. to seek protection. Immigration officials were detaining them indefinitely without a bond hearing. That's despite the fact that these individuals had already passed an initial screening and found to have a credible fear.

“What we actually see happening all the time is you have people who even though they're fleeing some really unimaginable types of persecution or harm – many whose family members have been killed, suffered all sorts of violence – after being locked up for so long that imprisonment becomes so oppressive that they decide that they're just going to give up,” said Matt Adams, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s legal director, who is arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Matt Adams
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

Adams says lower courts have ruled in NWIRP’s favor, and that hundreds of detainees have received bond hearings as a result.

The Ninth Circuit, for example, ruled that an immigration judge must grant individuals a bond hearing after six months because prolonged detention without a hearing raises serious due process concerns.

Now, it will be up to the nation’s highest court to decide whether immigrants detained all across the country should have the same protections.

The Department of Justice has argued that hearings are not required because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducts periodic file reviews.

Advocates argue that's no substitution for a hearing before a judge, especially since a backlog of cases can leave individuals languishing in detention for months, and possibly years.

“They shouldn't be punished for exercising their right to avoid being persecuted or tortured,” Adams said. “Instead, they should be sent in front of an immigration judge and given a chance to show that they don't present a danger to the community. They don't present a flight risk and instead they should be released to allow them to live their lives while they're waiting for those proceedings to conclude.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion by June.

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station.