Other Current Developments Regarding Cuban Migrants to U.S

When the U.S. decided on January 12 to end immediately the “dry foot/wet foot” immigration policy, as discussed in a prior post, two groups of Cubans faced immediate consequences.

First, many Cubans are stranded in Mexico or Central America unable to be allowed into the U.S. without a visa. Now many of them are waiting in place on the hope that Donald Trump after his January 20 inauguration will reverse the January 12 cancellation of that policy or make an exception for those in limbo.[1]

Alternatively if any of them are fleeing “persecution” in Cuba, they first must satisfy a “credible fear” test at the U.S. border and then subsequently apply for asylum in the U.S. They, however, will generally be held in immigration detention for potentially months and success is far from guaranteed. It can take years for asylum to be granted given the crushing caseloads for U.S. asylum officers and immigration judges.

Second, also affected is a group of Cubans known as Marielitos who are in the U.S., and whose situation requires a historical explanation.[2]

From April through October 1980, pursuant to Fidel Castro’s decision, nearly 125,000 Cubans were allowed to leave the island by boat from the port of Mariel on the north coast of the island west of Havana. Most were law-abiding, but some had just been released, by Fidel’s orders, from Cuban prisons and mental institutions. Within a few years after their arrival in the U.S. almost 3,000 of the “Marielitos” were in U.S. prisons after convictions for committing new and serious crimes in the U.S.

The Cuban government in 1984 agreed to take back 2,746 of these criminal Marielitos. But the U.S. deportations were slow and in some years did not take place at all. At one point, Marielitos who had been awaiting deportation for years rioted in several cities.

Now nearly 250 of this group of 2,746 have died, and, by June of last year, 478 of the original 2,746 remained in the U.S., but some of this smaller group are elderly or very ill, and the U.S. government has lost interest in deporting some of them.

The January 12, 2017, agreement between the U.S. and Cuba allows the U.S. to deport or remove up to 500 of the 2,746 Marielitos and send them back to Cuba, which agreed to accept them. Moreover, Cuba has agreed to accept other Marielitos who have been convicted of crimes in the U.S. as part of this group of 500, but were not part of the original group of 2,746.

I have a personal connection to one of the Marielitos. Before I retired from practicing law in June 2001, I was appointed by Minnesota’s federal court to represent, pro bono, one of them who was in immigration detention at the federal government’s medical facility in Rochester, Minnesota (the site of the famous Mayo Clinic). He had been convicted of a serious crime in Rhode Island, as I recall, and after completion of his criminal incarceration, the U.S. put him in immigration detention for deportation or removal to Cuba, but Cuba would not accept him back. Although he was not an attorney, he had filed, pro se, a habeas corpus petition with Minnesota’s federal court, and my task, as his pro bono attorney, was to analyze and submit a legal brief in support of that petition. I did so.

Before the government submitted a response to my legal brief and before the court had to make a decision on the petition, the U.S. government decided to permit my client’s release from immigration detention. At the Rochester medical facility, he was suffering from a terminal disease, and I believed the government’s decision for his release was not based on the quality of my legal arguments, but on its desire to reduce its costs of keeping him in that facility.

Not long after my “successful” representation of this Marielito and his release from the Rochester facility, my legal argument was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001), holding that the Constitution did not permit the U.S. to detain indefinitely immigrants under order of deportation whom no other country will accept. To justify detention of immigrants for a period longer than six months, the government was required to show removal in the foreseeable future or special circumstances.

Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, 7-2, in Clark v. Martinez, 543 U.S. 371 (2005), that the Zadvydas decision applied to Marielitos, whose return Cuba would not permit.

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[1] Assoc. Press, Cuban Migrants Steps From US Border Hope for Trump Solution, N.Y. times (Jan. 14, 2017); Assoc. Press, US Policy Change on Cuban Migrants Leaves Many Stranded, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017).

[2] Robles, ‘Marielitos’ Face Long-Delayed Reckoning: Expulsion to Cuba, N.Y. times (Jan. 14, 2017); Mariel boatlift, Wikipedia; Greenhouse, Supreme Court Rejects Mariel Cubans Detention, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2005); Zadvydas v. Davis, Wikipedia; Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001); Clark v. Martinez, Wikipedia; Clark v. Martinez, 543 U.S. 371 (2005).

 

 

 

Federal Appellate Court Allows Lawsuit by Guantanamo Detainees

On February 11th the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C. ruled, 2 to 1, that the federal courts had jurisdiction over habeas corpus petitions by three detainees challenging their being subjected to force-feeding at  the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Therefore, the court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the petitions and remanded the cases to that court for further proceedings. (Aamer v. Obama, No. 13-5223 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 11, 2014).)[1]

These claims arose after a major hunger strike at Guantánamo a year ago. Detainees who lost sufficient weight were forced to eat a nutritional supplement.

The Majority Opinion

1. Federal courts’ jurisdiction.

The key issue for the court was whether habeas jurisdiction was forbidden by section 7(1) of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (“MCA”), which provided as follows:

  • “No court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination.”
Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel

In reaching its conclusion that this provision did not foreclose jurisdiction, the court in an opinion by Circuit Judge David S. Tatel that was joined by Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith started with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008).

In Boumediene the Supreme Court held that this statutory section was unconstitutional under Article One, Section 9, Clause 2 of the U.S, Constitution (the Suspension Clause), which states, “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” This was so, held the Supreme Court, because there was no other means for a Guantanamo detainee to attempt to show that he was being held pursuant to an erroneous application or interpretation of relevant law before a court with the power to order his conditional release.

The next step in the analysis was determining that the D.C. Circuit’s own subsequent decisions had decided that Boumediene had invalidated section 7(1) of the MCA for all habeas petitions by Guantanamo detainees. As a result, the determinative issue for the majority in Aamer was whether these petitioners’ claims were the sort that properly could be raised in habeas petitions.

The circuit court then concluded that these claims were properly within the scope of habeas corpus. This was so, the majority stated, because (a) the Supreme Court had suggested that habeas covers claims challenging conditions of confinement while leaving the issue open for that Court’s decision in a future case; (b) the D.C. Circuit’s own binding precedents had established that “one in custody may challenge the conditions of his confinement “ by a habeas petition; and (c) “the weight of the reasoned precedent” in other circuits had reached the same conclusion.

2. Preliminary injunction.

The detainees on appeal also challenged the district court’s denial of their requests for preliminary injunctive relief against their force-feeding, but the D.C. Circuit affirmed that denial because they had not shown likelihood of success on the merits.

This was so even though the appellate court said,”[W]e have no doubt that force-feeding is a painful and invasive process that raises serious ethical concerns.” But “it is not enough for us to say that force-feeding may cause physical pain, invade bodily integrity, or even implicate petitioners’ fundamental individual rights.”

The majority in Aamer recognized that this claim for injunctive relief had to be evaluated under Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), which held that “the legality of a prison regulation that ‘impinges on’ an inmate’s constitutional rights” must be upheld if it “’is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.’”

Here, said the majority, the government had asserted two penological interests: “preserving the lives of those in its custody and maintaining security and discipline in the detention facility.”  These were legitimate interests as “the overwhelming majority of courts have concluded . . . that absent exceptional circumstances prison officials may force-feed a starving inmate actually facing the risk of death.”

The Dissent

Senior Judge Stephen F. Williams’ dissenting opinion concluded that the majority should have followed what he deemed to be Congress’s intentions in enacting the MCA and affirmed the dismissal of the cases. Congress, he said, “unmistakably sought to prevent the federal courts from entertaining claims based on detainees’ conditions of confinement.” “Such evident congressional intent would seem to counsel a cautious rather than a bravura reading” of whether such claims fell into the category of habeas corpus lawsuit.

Conclusion

We now wait to find out what the government will do. Ask the entire D.C. Circuit (en banc) to rehear the case?   Petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case? Or return to the district court and litigate the claims there?

The majority in this case emphasized that they were only addressing the likelihood of the petitioners’ succeeding on their claims for preliminary injunctive relief, and not the actual merits. But the majority’s analysis and language, in my opinion, suggests that it is highly unlikely that the petitioners would succeed on the merits.

This case is not the only one involving Guantanamo detainees before the D.C. Circuit.

On February 21, 2014, Judge Tatel joined by Circuit Judges Janice Rogers Brown and A. Raymond Randolph heard oral arguments in an appeal from a dismissal of a complaint for money damages by six such detainees against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former U.S. military officials for alleged torture, religious abuse and other mistreatment at Guantanamo. (Allaithi v. Rumsfeld, No. 13-5096 (D.C. Cir.).) The main issues in this case are the following:

  • whether the claims are barred by the Westfall Act (28 U.S.C. sec. 2679), which makes lawsuits against the U.S. the exclusive remedy for injury “arising or resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any [government] employee while acting within the scope of his office or employment;” and
  • whether the defendants are immune from such a suit.

A decision on this case should issue later this year.


[1] The D.C. Circuit’s opinion was reported in the New York Times and Associated Press. Judge Tatel is a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of the blogger.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Decides Guantanamo Bay Detainee’s Case Against U.S. Is Admissible on the Merits

On March 30, 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“IACHR” or “Commission”) decided that a case against the U.S. was admissible for determination on the merits.

The case was brought by Djamel Ameziane, who left his home country of Algeria in the early 1990s to avoid a bloody civil war. Thereafter he lived in Austria and Canada for many years until Canada denied his asylum  application. Fearing deportation to Algeria, he fled to Afghanistan just before the U.S. invasion in October 2001. Like many others, he then went to Pakistan to escape the war. There he was picked up and sold to U.S. forces for a bounty. In early 2002 Ameziane was transferred to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been held ever since without any charges being filed against him. Documents about his hearings at Guantanamo Bay are available on the web.)

In February 2005 he filed a habeas corpus petition with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. There were some preliminary pre-trial and appellate skirmishes, but the case has been stayed or postponed indefinitely by court order.

Thus being left without an effective remedy in U.S. federal court, Ameziane on August 6, 2008, filed with the IACHR a petition and a request for precautionary measures (akin to a preliminary injunction) against the U.S.

Two weeks later, the Commission issued its Urgent Precautionary Measures that required the U.S. immediately to do the following:1.

  1. “[T]ake all measures necessary to ensure that . . . Ameziane is not subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or torture during the course of interrogations or at any other time, including but not limited to all corporal punishment and punishment that may be prejudicial to [his] physical or mental health;
  2. [T]ake all measures necessary to ensure that . . . Ameziane receives prompt and effective medical attention for physical and psychological ailments and that such medical attention is not made contingent upon any condition;
  3.  [T]ake all measures necessary to ensure that, prior to any potential transfer or release, . . .    Ameziane is provided an adequate, individualized examination of his circumstances through a fair and transparent process before a competent, independent and impartial decision maker; and
  4.  [T]ake all measures necessary to ensure that . . . Ameziane is not transferred or removed to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture or other mistreatment, and that diplomatic assurances are not being used to circumvent the United States’ non-refoulement obligations.”

In October 2010 the Commission held a hearing in the case. Evidence was provided about Ameziane’s lack of effective remedies in U.S. courts, his continuing need to be protected from forcible transfer to Algeria and his plea for resettlement in a safe third country.

Eighteen months later the Commission issued its previously mentioned decision that the case was admissible for proceedings on the merits. Thereafter Ameziane’s attorneys immediately renewed their request that the IACHR facilitate a dialogue between the U.S. and other countries belonging to the Organization of American States toward the safe resettlement of men such as Ameziane, as indefinite detention at Guantánamo will not end unless the international community offers safe homes for the men who cannot return to their countries of nationality for fear of torture or persecution. The attorneys also asked the U.S. Government to direct the U.S. Department of Defense to certify Ameziane for transfer, or, if necessary, authorize a “national security waiver” of the transfer restrictions for him. (Under the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2012, he needs a certification or waiver before he can be released.)

Now we wait to see what happens in this case.

Ameziane’s attorneys are from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.