Do Noncitizens Have Constitutional Rights?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 27 2001 5:47 PM

Do Noncitizens Have Constitutional Rights?

Attorney General John Ashcroft wants the power to lock up immigrants suspected of terrorism and hold them indefinitely. Wouldn't this violate the Constitution?

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Not necessarily. True, the Bill of Rights applies to everyone, even illegal immigrants. So an immigrant, legal or illegal, prosecuted under the criminal code has the right to due process, a speedy and public trial, and other rights protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. This fact sheet from the National Lawyers Guild outlines a host of rights afforded to immigrants and citizens alike. (There are a few rights reserved for citizens. Among them are the right to vote, the right to hold most federal jobs, and the right to run for political office.)

But immigration proceedings are matters of administrative law, not criminal law. (As a result, the consequence of violating your immigration status is not jail but deportation.) And Congress has nearly full authority to regulate immigration without interference from the courts. Because immigration is considered a matter of national security and foreign policy, the Supreme Court has long held that immigration law is largely immune from judicial review. Congress can make rules for immigrants that would be unacceptable if applied to citizens.

In 1952's Harisiades v. Shaughnessy, the Supreme Court upheld the right of Congress to expel noncitizens who were former Communists. "In recognizing this power and this responsibility of Congress, one does not in the remotest degree align oneself with fears unworthy of the American spirit or with hostility to the bracing air of the free spirit," Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in his concurrence. "One merely recognizes that the place to resist unwise or cruel legislation touching aliens is the Congress, not this Court."

Still, immigrants facing deportation do have some rights. Most are entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge, representation by a lawyer (but not one that's paid for by the government), and interpretation for non-English-speakers. The government must provide "clear and convincing" evidence to deport someone (a lower standard than "beyond a reasonable doubt").

On the other hand, some immigrants who are suspected terrorists may not be allowed to confront the evidence against them. In 1996, Congress established the Alien Terrorist Removal Court, a secret tribunal that can examine classified evidence. (Interestingly, Congress mandated in the same law that an immigrant tried by the terrorist court would have the right to counsel at government expense.) But the Alien Terrorist Removal Court has never been used, and a Department of Justice spokesman said he isn't aware of any plans to use the terrorist court any time soon.

Explainer thanks Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association; immigration lawyer David Leopold; Russ Bergeron of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; this American Civil Liberties Union report; and Dan Nelson of the Department of Justice.

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