Immigrants Behind Bars: Preventing Unwarranted Lengthy Detention

Michael Kaufman
Michael Kaufman, JD ’07 (BA ’03) (Photo by Leslie Williamson)

Michael Kaufman first saw the grim limbo of a federal immigration detention center as a 1L summer intern with the American Civil Liberties Union. 
Detainees at the remote facility he toured in Lancaster, California, had minimal legal and communication resources. Their families could not easily 
visit. Longtime legal residents with minor crimes years in the past as well as political asylum seekers with no criminal records were detained for no 
apparent reason. And the sense of uncertainty was excruciating, as some 
detainees were forced to wait months, even years, for their cases to be 

“Immigration law is incredibly complex, some say second only to the tax code,” says Kaufman, JD ’07 (BA ’03), and yet immigration is a civil matter and detainees have no right to counsel. He recalls thinking, “We’ve got to do something to help these people.”

And he has. Initially at Stanford Law and now as a staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, Kaufman has been part of a landmark class-action lawsuit team trying to reform the immigrant detention process. In August of this year, a U.S. district court judge for the Central District of California issued an important ruling that immigration detainees could no longer be held indefinitely without a bond hearing.

“Our goal has been to get the government to change immigrant detention policies so they’re brought in line with constitutional limits,” says Jayashri Srikantiah, professor of law and the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, which co-counseled the case with the ACLU.

Photo of Jayashri
Jayashri Srikantiah, Professor of Law and Director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School (Photo by Leslie Williamson)

The situation is eye-opening. According to the Detention Watch Network, a coalition of organizations seeking detention reform, it has also gotten worse. They note that on any given day, there are more than 30,000 immigration detainees in federal centers, jails, and other facilities across the United States, compared with roughly 5,000 per day in 1994. The numbers surged after 1996, when Congress broadened U.S. immigration laws to include more conditions that could mandate deportation charges. Proponents argued the changes would tighten national security. But another result was legions of detainees held for long periods of time, some for minor, nonviolent crimes, at a cost estimated at around $2 billion annually.

It has taken the focus and efforts of people like Kaufman and students in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic to bring about change. After his ACLU 
internship, Kaufman returned to Stanford Law and enrolled in the clinic. There, Kaufman helped develop the complaint and claims in Rodriguez v. Robbins, a class action that was filed in 2007 by Srikantiah and ACLU attorneys.

Prior to Rodriguez, the ACLU had been filing lawsuits on behalf of individual detainees, but the government often would release the plaintiff to moot those suits. In Rodriguez, the named plaintiff was an immigrant from Mexico with lawful permanent resident status who had come to the United States as a 1-year-old. After pleading no contest for possession of a controlled substance in 2003, he was sentenced to five years’ probation. In 2004, he was transferred to the control of the Department of Homeland Security and detained for three years—without even a bond hearing to determine whether he could be released pending review of his deportation case by a judge. Yet, he too was released shortly after the case was filed. But the legal team pressed on with the class action.

Progress initially was slow, the case ticking on over years-—the government fighting every step. As Srikantiah, the clinic, and ACLU attorneys continued to work on the case, Kaufman kept abreast of the progress, even after law school when he clerked for the Honorable Sidney R. Thomas of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Billings, Montana, and was a Skadden Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. 
Rodriguez continued to move ahead and in 2010, Kaufman joined the ACLU in southern California and again began working on the class action. In 2012, Federal Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. issued a preliminary injunction that required bond hearings at six months and an August 2013 ruling made it permanent.

“Michael was a wonderful law student and he is a spectacular lawyer. He has been involved in the Rodriguez case from the very beginning,” says Srikantiah. Kaufman has been instrumental in securing the most recent victory in Rodriguez, a summary judgment ruling in the detainees’ favor. “Thanks to the work of Michael and others on the Rodriguez team, immigrant detainees in the Los Angeles area now receive bond hearings after they have been detained for six months.”

So far, says Kaufman, hearings for hundreds of detainees across Southern California have resulted in two-thirds of them being released on bond by the government’s own judges. All who have been involved in this case are keeping their guard up though. Both Srikantiah and Kaufman expect the government to appeal Judge Hatter’s ruling, but they vow to press on.

“Many of these people have lived almost their entire lives here. They include lawful permanent residents. Some may have had minor convictions in the past but have served their time and become contributing members of society,” Srikantiah explains.

However, many are traumatized. For example, one Rodriguez plaintiff, Abdirizak Aden Farah, was an asylum seeker from Somalia. Farah made a harrowing escape from his violent, almost totally lawless homeland and eventually requested asylum at a southern California border in 2009. He spent months in detention, his hearings repeatedly delayed for issues such as the lack of a translator. In early 2012, Farah became so distraught, he gave up and agreed to be deported. At last report, according to Kaufman, Farah was searching refugee camps looking for his wife and baby, who had to flee Somalia after he left. Kaufman says cases like Farah’s inspire him to keep doing this kind of legal work. “So many people are forced into impossible choices.” SL