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Detention of Immigrants Challenged Before US Supreme Court

Lawyers for a young South Korean man went before the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday to challenge a law that allows the government to indefinitely detain legal immigrants who commit crimes inside the United States. The case could have implications for the government's war on terrorism.

Hyung Joon Kim, 25, came to the United States from South Korea with his family in 1984. By the age of 19, Mr. Kim had two criminal convictions, one for breaking and entering and another for shoplifting. After serving a year and a half in prison, he was released by the state of California in 1999, only to be detained immediately by immigration authorities.

Under a 1996 law passed by Congress, so-called criminal aliens face mandatory detention without bond until they are deported. Mr. Kim was held for six months until a lower court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. The government has appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

Judy Rabinovitz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, argued Mr. Kim's case before the high court. "The issue in this case, as we explained to the court, is whether individuals can be locked up for potentially extended periods of time without individualized determination that their detention is actually necessary," she said.

Ms. Rabinovitz says the law passed by Congress violates the constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest by the government. She also says it has allowed the government to indefinitely hold many immigrants who have committed minor crimes and pose no danger to the public. "There are a lot of immigrants affected by this," said Ms. Rabinovitz. "That is part of the problem with this statute. It applies so broadly to individuals who are lawful permanent residents who are convicted of minor crimes in the past, some of them never even went to jail for their crimes, and now they are put into immigration detention for months or years."

Government lawyers counter that the law is necessary to prevent immigrant criminals from fleeing or committing more crimes while awaiting deportation. They argue that Congress passed the law because 20 to 40 percent of criminal immigrants who were not held in custody failed to show up for their deportation hearings.

Richard Samp is an attorney representing a dozen members of Congress who want the Supreme Court to uphold the 1996 law. "Non-citizens of this country are here as guests," he said. "We welcome them warmly. They add much to this country. However, once they have shown by their behavior that they do not deserve to be here because they have committed felonies, they have no rights to continue to live freely in society."

Legal analysts say the case will allow the Supreme Court to decide to what extent the protections of the U.S. Constitution apply to non-citizens living in the United States.

Attorney Richard Samp also argues the case has legal implications for the war on terrorism. "Particularly during this period of terrorist activity, this is not the time for the courts to be second-guessing the decision by Congress that we need to keep criminal aliens out of this country and we need to keep them detained for so long as it takes to get them out of this country," he said.

The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision in the Kim case by the end of June.