ATLANTA – Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Georgia filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the Trump administration’s cash bail system that discriminates against people held in Georgia immigration prisons based on their financial status.
The federal government detains thousands of people each month, including asylum seekers, lawful permanent residents, and victims of human trafficking, in Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center and Stewart Detention Center. Many of these individuals — charged with violations of civil immigration law and detained pending deportation proceeds — have been found eligible for release, but are currently detained solely because they lack the financial resources to buy a bond for their freedom, in violation of their rights to due process and equal protection under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Immigration and Nationality Act.
“Georgia immigration officials routinely flout federal laws by keeping low-income immigrants in detention months after the court has set bond in their case simply because they cannot afford to pay their bond,” said Ivy Wang, senior staff attorney for SPLC. “This practice of wealth-based detention is not only unconstitutional, but it also significantly hinders a person’s ability to defend their case and support their family.”
Plaintiff Jose Torres-Soto is one of them. Following a traffic accident in December, the husband and father of four, including three U.S. citizen children, was transported to the Irwin County Detention Center, where he sat for five months before receiving a court hearing on May 2.
During the hearing, the immigration judge refused to set bond for his release at $18,000, but did not explain why bond was set so high or ask if Torres-Soto, who had been working overtime as a manufacturing company machine operator to make ends meet, could pay it.
“I work hard to provide for my family, but it’s almost never enough,” said Torres-Soto. “When I was detained by ICE, our situation went from bad to worse. No one should be deprived of their freedom only because they don’t have the money to get out. My family and I don’t deserve this treatment.”
Federal immigration officials have determined that certain individuals can be safely released on cash bond. Yet, federal officials refuse to take into account an individual's ability to pay when they set bond, and as a result, many individuals languish in harsh prison facilities for months while their case is pending.
“A person's wealth should never decide their freedom, but that's exactly what's happening in Georgia and across the country,” stated Sean J. Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia. “Many people who have already been found eligible for release remain in detention for months as they await the resolution of their immigration cases simply because of the amount of money in their pocket.”
The case, Torres-Soto v. Barr, is filed in the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Georgia. Defendants are U.S. Attorney General William Barr, officials from the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Irwin County Detention Center.
“The Constitution doesn’t allow the government to lock you up just because you lack financial resources,” said Michael Tan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Our lawsuit seeks to end the government’s unlawful practice of jailing people solely because they don’t have the money to post bond and buy their freedom.”