WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the government may not indefinitely detain criminals who are undocumented immigrants, undercutting a Bush administration policy applied to foreigners deemed too dangerous to be freed.
In a separate ruling, the justices said the United States can deport immigrants without first getting permission from the receiving country. The 5-to-4 ruling will hasten the return of thousands of Somalis who have resisted going back to their war-torn homeland.
The detention case involved two men who were part of the 1980 Mariel exodus, in which President Fidel Castro of Cuba sent criminals and psychiatric patients to the United States along with thousands of other fleeing Cubans.
The high court ruled in 2001 that it would be unconstitutional to detain legal immigrants who have served time for crimes for more than a "reasonable period," generally six months. That also should cover undocumented immigrants, the Supreme Court said in a 7-to-2 ruling yesterday.
"The government fears that the security of our borders will be compromised if it must release into the country inadmissible aliens who cannot be removed. If that is so, Congress can attend to it," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.
The administration had argued for wide discretion in holding foreigners, particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Judith Rabinowitz, a senior lawyer for the ACLU's Immigration Rights Project, which filed a brief supporting the immigrants, said: "It's a clear rejection of what we see as the Bush administration overreaching."
Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented. They argued that the government should have greater authority to detain undocumented immigrants for national security reasons.
Daniel Benitez was in prison in Florida for armed robbery, burglary, and battery. Sergio Martinez was convicted of theft and assault in Rhode Island.
They finished their sentences in late 2001, but have been in US immigration custody since then, under a 1996 law that tightened restrictions on criminal aliens. The law allows extended detention for people facing deportation, if the attorney general believes they are dangerous.
Government records show that about 2,269 undocumented immigrants are in prison. More than half of them, including 920 Cubans from the Mariel boatlift, have been held longer than six months. The ruling means those detainees now must be released.
Richard Samp, a lawyer for the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, which filed a brief supporting the government, said the decision "leaves the federal government without power to prevent a foreign country from dumping all of its undesirable citizens on our shores."
The case is Clark v. Martinez, 03-878, and Benitez v. Rozos, 03-7434.
In the other ruling, the court said the United States does not need the consent of a foreign country before deporting an immigrant to that country.
More than 8,000 Somalis being held in the United States are subject to deportation or are awaiting hearings.
At issue was whether a president is authorized to deport legal immigrants even when the receiving country has not agreed to take them because it lacks a functioning government. Scalia wrote that Congress had intended that these immigrants could be deported without a country's permission even though federal law does not specifically say that.
If the Somali immigrants fear harm at home, they have other remedies for relief, including applying for asylum, Scalia wrote. He was joined in the ruling by Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.
Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented, saying the statute allows the Somalis to stay.