Our Voices

RFKHR’s legal strategy to end indefinite immigration detention highlighted in habeas corpus lawsuit wins

Every day, the United States government holds over 35,000 people in immigration detention while their immigration cases proceed. Using a nationwide network of jails and prisons located in rural communities isolated from legal assistance groups, the government cuts off immigrants’ access to lawyers and subjects thousands of people each year to prolonged detention ranging from six months to years. Inside detention centers, immigrants endure racist abuse, prolonged solitary confinement, and dangerous denial of medical care that, in some cases, has proved fatal.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has implemented a long-term legal strategy to change that by sending lawyers to detention centers in some of the country’s most under-resourced and under-aided legal jurisdictions. In the process, the organization isn’t just helping some of the nation’s most vulnerable people fight abusive detention practices. It’s also expanding the meaning of due process in the U.S. Constitution through strategic litigation.

In 2023, RFKHR has won two habeas corpus lawsuits in the Western District of New York for clients held indefinitely in a federal detention center in Batavia, New York. Both of the decisions found that the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process to all required the government to provide a bail hearing to immigrants held in prolonged civil detention.

In Cenesca v. Brophy, a federal judge in July held that the three-year detention of Yvensi Jeff Cenesca without a bail hearing was unconstitutional. In its decision, the Court emphasized the punitive conditions of immigration detention, including Mr. Cenesca’s prolonged solitary confinement.

In Davis v. Garland, decided just a few months before Cenesca, RFKHR also secured a federal court order declaring a constitutional right to a bail hearing for a man of Jamaican descent with a good-faith claim to U.S. citizenship who had been imprisoned in immigrant detention for over three years.

The issue of whether prolonged immigration detention without opportunity for bail violates the U.S. Constitution remains unresolved by the Supreme Court. By litigating in underserved jurisdictions like the Western District of New York, RFKHR is building a track record of lower court positive case law in regions of the country that previously lacked it. Ultimately, as more courts around the country declare prolonged immigration detention without a bail hearing to be unconstitutional, RFKHR seeks to build legal support for a universal rule that provides due process protections to immigrants.

“Immigration detention is supposed to be civil detention, but our clients are held indefinitely in punitive conditions that are indistinguishable from prisons,” said Sarah Decker, staff attorney. “Our litigation is inspired by their brave self-advocacy in the face of life-threatening medical neglect, solitary confinement, and retaliation for speaking out for their human rights. Together, we’re working to hold the government accountable by demonstrating that detention itself is fundamentally inhumane.”

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 made major changes to the Immigration and Nationality Act that increased the size and scope of immigration detention in the United States. The legislation has been repeatedly criticized as overly punitive for eliminating due process protections against arbitrary detention. And since its passage, both the number of people detained annually and the average detention length have exploded.

But Anthony Enriquez, Vice President of U.S. Advocacy and Litigation, noted that RFKHR’s legal strategy draws attention to more than just the length of detention. “In each of our cases, we’re deliberate in highlighting the torturous conditions of confinement that our clients face. By building a federal court record of cruel and degrading treatment at facilities across the country, we’re supporting grassroots calls to permanently end immigration detention.”