The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an interesting, but troubling story today of the unlawful detention and imprisonment of illegal migrant workers who are witnesses to a murder. Here's the basic crux of the situation:
Because they were illegal immigrants as well as material witnesses to the April 29 crime, the men were immediately taken into custody and have remained in jail for the past seven months: first in St. Tammany, then in federal custody, then back to the north shore. For the first six months, they didn't have an attorney.Here's my take on the situation. If we are a country of laws, then regardless of what our position is on the illegal immigration question, if we are going to make obedience to the law and its enforcement the cornerstone of our social order, much less as our approach to the illegal immigration problem, we should at least respect the law ourselves. Currently, the law, like it or not, does not allow for the detention and imprisonment of individuals, even illegal immigrants, without formally charging them with a specific crime and beginning the process of hearing the case according to established legal procedures. (Except, of course, if someone is identified as an "enemy combatant" by the President, which could erase even one's basic human rights, but that's another topic altogether and is irrelevant to this case since none of these illegal immigrants, as far as I know, have been declared "enemy combatants" by the President.)
They're stuck in a perilous limbo, in the fissure between state and federal government -- trapped between prosecutors, who need them to testify at the trial of four suspects, and immigration officials, who would deport them if they were released.
Seems to me that our system of laws, if we pretend to still be a country of laws, requires one of the following courses of action: (1) charging these six individuals with a crime (legitimately verifiable and not trumped-up) that warrants such lengthy detention and imprisonment according to the law, as well as providing them with the corresponding rights to legal representation and due process; (2) releasing them immediately from jail, and accepting that they may be deported in accordance with immigration law and may thus prevent the ability of prosecutors to call them as witnesses in a murder trial that would put violent criminals behind bars and provide for the safety of the general public; (3) making an accommodation with federal immigration authorities that normalizes their legal resident status in the United States that would subsequently prevent their immediate deportation while securing their immediate release from prison. [ASIDE: There is, of course, a fourth option: having the POTUS declare these six people enemy combatants. But doing this would be nightmarish as it would confirm the worst fears of the cynical use and abuse of such authority imaginable -- even though, sadly, unthinkable that this would have been in different times, it would not come as a surprise to me if something like this were done.]
What is unconscionable and illegal is the status quo: keeping these six men, not charged with any crime, locked up in jail without sufficient legal representation (and withouth any legal representation for six months!) and due process of law.
Regardless of any other considerations, if we are a country of laws, and if we expect migrants to themselves obey our laws, this really should be a no-brainer: they should be freed immediately from jail in accordance with our laws. The argument that they don't deserve such privileges because they are illegal immigrants is a non-starter argument. Those who would make such an argument would be doing so on the basis of wishful thinking and not on the basis of sound legal grounding and precedent. For those who think this way, the long term solution is to get legislators to craft laws that would serve justice all around instead of having to carry out (or at the very least tolerate) one injustice and violation of the law in the pursuit of rectifying another injustice and upholding the law. In the meantime, though, it seems to me that the correct and proper course of action in accordance with the law is clear:
Free the St. Tammany Six!