Through an executive order issued within days of his inauguration, he declared the end of “catch and release” of noncitizens (i.e., allowing them a possibility of bonding out of custody pending their removal hearings) and later instituted a policy of separating Central American parents and children in immigration detention. This latter policy provoked a national — and bipartisan —furor that led to its speedy abandonment.
Nonetheless, immigrant detention continues to be central to the Trump administration’s response to Central American asylum seekers. At a critical juncture in contemporary immigration enforcement, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week in Nielsen v. Preap expanded executive power to detain immigrants.
Along with noncitizens associated with terrorism, “criminal aliens” are often targeted for harsh treatment under the U.S. immigration laws. A large portion of the removals from the United States of lawful permanent residents each year are of immigrants convicted of crimes. The executive branch, including when Barack Obama was president, lost in the Supreme Court several removal cases based on relatively minor criminal convictions.
Congressional amendments in 1996 toughened the immigration statute to require mandatory detention of certain categories of “criminal aliens." In Demore v. Kim (2003), the Supreme Court upheld the lawfulness of detention of immigrants convicted of certain crimes pending their removal from the United States under 8 U.S.C. § 1226(c).
Less than two years ago, the court grappled with the right to a bond hearing for immigrants convicted of crimes placed in detention in Jennings v. Rodriguez (2018); after holding re-argument in the case, the court, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, held that the statute did not require a bond hearing and remanded the case to the court of appeals to address the constitutionality of mandatory detention.
The contemporary use of detention by the Trump administration heightened the attention paid to the Supreme Court’s review of the complicated statutory question of immigrant detention in Nielsen v. Preap. Entering the United States as a refugee from Cambodia in 1981, Mony Preap had several convictions, mostly small-time drug convictions.
Released from criminal custody in 2006, he was not arrested by the U.S. immigration authorities until 2013. The U.S. government placed two other plaintiffs, Juan Lozano Magdaleno (who entered the United States from Mexico in 1974) and Eduardo Vega Padilla (a Mexican citizen who entered the country in 1966), into immigrant detention five and 11 years, respectively, after their release from state custody.
Two class actions and a group of habeas corpus cases challenged the lawfulness under the immigration statute of U.S. government arrests of lawful permanent residents long after release from state custody. Importantly, the lawsuits did not challenge the statute on constitutional grounds but only claimed that the detention was not authorized by the statute.
8 U.S.C. § 1226(c) provides that the U.S. government “shall take into custody any alien [described in subsequent sub-sections as being convicted of certain crimes and being related to persons engaged in `terrorist activities’] ... when the alien is released, without regard to whether the alien is released on parole, supervised release or probation ....” (emphasis added). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had held that the statute only authorized detention immediately upon the release of the immigrant from state custody.
In immigration cases that come before the Supreme Court, the issues raised generally boil down to the interpretation of the immigration statute, which is famous for its complexity, and, when appropriate, the deference properly afforded the agency’s interpretation. In the end, the proper textual interpretation of Section 1226(c) was at the center of the disagreement among the justices in the case of Nielsen v. Preap. The court found that the statutory language was clear and that resort to deference doctrines was unnecessary.
Justice Alito, joined in full by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and in large part by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, held that the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of Section 1226(c) was contrary to the plain text and structure of the statute. The court instead found that the statute allowed detention even if the U.S. government did not assume custody until after — indeed long after — release from state custody.
Telegraphing the final outcome, Justice Alito’s opinion began as follows:
Thus, in interpreting the statutory language, the court emphasizes at the outset the importance of the fact that the detention at issue involves immigrants who “committed certain dangerous crimes” and those with “connections to terrorism,” two particularly disfavored groups of noncitizens under the immigration laws.
Aliens who are arrested because they are believed to be deportable may generally apply for release on bond or parole while the question of their removal is being decided ... Congress has decided, however, that this procedure is too risky in some instances. Congress therefore adopted a special rule for aliens who have committed certain dangerous crimes and those who have connections to terrorism. (emphasis added).
In concluding that the plain language of Section 1226(c) allowed immigrant detention long after release from state custody, the majority engaged in a textual analysis that only a grammarian could love. The majority painstakingly reviewed the language of the statutory provision in question and emphasized that it applies to noncitizens convicted of crimes as well as relatives of terrorists.
Relying on, among other things, definitions from a couple of dictionaries, and a book on interpretation co-authored by the late Justice Antonin Scalia (A. Scalia & B. Garner, "Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts" (2012)), the majority found that the immigrants were subject to mandatory detention “even if (as with respondents) the Secretary did not arrest them immediately `when’ they were `released.’” Justice Alito justified that conclusion by noting that “respondents’ unsparing deadline will often be missed for reasons beyond the Federal Government’s control,” (citation omitted), such the refusal of state and local government to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
Among the cases that the majority relied on in support of its interpretation of 8 U.S.C. § 1225(c) was its decision in United States v. Montalvo-Murillo (1990). In that case, the court held that “a provision that a detention hearing ‘shall be held immediately upon the [detainee’s] first appearance before the judicial officer’ did not ban detention after a tardy hearing.” (citation omitted).
The majority concluded that, because the statute was not ambiguous, the canon of construction calling for the interpretation of the statute to avoid constitutional questions did not apply. In reaching that conclusion, the court relied on Jennings v. Rodriguez, in which the court reached a similar conclusion in finding that the statutory provision in question did not provide for a periodic bond hearing for immigrants held in detention.
Going out of its way to emphasize that no constitutional questions were before the court, the majority concluded its analysis of the statute as follows: “While respondents might have raised a head-on constitutional challenge to § 1226(c), they did not. Our decision today on the meaning of that statutory provision does not foreclose as-applied challenges — that is, constitutional challenges to applications of the statute as we have now read it.” Based on that invitation, expect future as-applied constitutional challenges.
For a plurality of the court, Justice Alito, joined by the chief justice and Justice Kavanaugh, relied on Jennings v. Rodriguez to conclude that the immigration statute allowed for judicial review. As in that case, the immigration statute’s framework could be challenged even though the statute bars review of discretionary judgments by immigration officials in individual removal cases. In addition, Justice Alito reasoned that, because there was at least one named plaintiff with a live case when the class was certified, the case was not moot.
Although agreeing with the majority’s analysis of Section 1226(c), Justices Thomas and Gorsuch disagreed on the issue of judicial review. Justice Thomas reiterated what he said in his concurrence in Jennings v. Rodriguez — that the court lacked jurisdiction of class actions under 8 U.S.C. § 1252(f)(l), which he reads as barring such review.
Justice Kavanaugh “wrote separately to emphasize the narrowness of the case before us ...” He emphasized that the sole question before the court was the interpretation of the statute to determine whether the executive branch had “to immediately detain the noncitizen when the noncitizen is released from custody ..” (emphasis in original).
Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented. As highlighted in news reports on the decision, Justice Breyer firmly rebutted Justice Kavanaugh’s claim that the issue decided by the court was “narrow”:
Justice Breyer’s dissent emphasizes that the language and structure of the statute, as well as the canon of constitutional avoidance, all undercut the majority’s interpretation of the statute. He emphasized the importance of the question because, under the majority’s interpretation, the immigrant would be detained without the opportunity to bond out of custody — and thus would be detained even if not determined to be a flight risk or a danger to the community.
Under the Government’s view, the aliens subject to detention without a bail hearing may have been released from criminal custody years earlier, and may have established families and put down roots in a community. These aliens may then be detained for months, sometimes years, without possibility for release; they may have been convicted of only minor crimes ... Moreover, for a high percentage of them, it will turn out after months of custody that they will not be removed from the country because they are eligible to receive a form of relief from removal ... Thus, in terms of potential consequences and basic American legal traditions, ... the question before us is not a “narrow” one ...
Like the majority, Justice Breyer closely parsed the language of the statute. He, however, did not find the interpretation “plain” and reached a contrary conclusion. His interpretation was that “[t]he words `when the alien is released’ require the Secretary to detain aliens under subsection (c) within a reasonable time after their release from criminal custody — presumptively no longer than six months.”
Offering an interesting insight into the former law professor’s mind, Justice Breyer employed an analogy of a recipe for cooking an Angus steak to illustrate his point of statutory construction. Justice Breyer also would invoke the canon of constitutional avoidance to interpret the statute to avoid constitutional questions that might be raised in the event of an arrest years after release from state custody and the denial of a bond hearing.
Justice Breyer concluded that “[i]n my view, the Court should interpret the words of the statute to reflect Congress’ likely intent, an intent that is consistent with our basic values ... I fear that the Court’s contrary interpretation will work serious harm to the principles for which American law has long stood.”
Nielsen v. Preap is but another step in the expansion of executive power over immigrant detention. The court so held in a time when the U.S. government is aggressively detaining immigrants and promises to do more. Although continuing that trend, the holding will not likely have a huge impact on immigration law and immigration detention.
As Justice Kavanaugh made clear, the court did not address the constitutionality of detention without the possibility of bond, an issue that it remanded to the lower court in Jennings v. Rodriguez. The constitutional question thus remains alive and likely will be before the court again.
More generally, all of the justices carefully parsed the text of the statute and considered the statutory structure. They took the task of judicial review seriously. In that way, the court’s approach continues the court’s move toward the “normalization” of immigration law, applying ordinary methods to interpreting the immigration statute.
Kevin R. Johnson is the dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
 See, for example, Moncrieffe v. Holder, 569 U.S. 184 (2013)
(vacating removal order based on conviction for possession of small amount of marijuana) https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/11-702.
 503 U.S. 510 (2003) https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/01-1491.ZS.html.
 138 S. Ct. 830 (2017) https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/15-1204_f29g.pdf.
 495 U.S. 711 (1990) https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/495/711.html.