Throughout its history, the United States has both celebrated immigrants and been leery of them. There have been exclusionary laws against certain categories of immigrants, and noncitizens have often been deprived of legal and constitutional protections.
Congress added to this checkered history in 1996, when it passed a law allowing the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to summarily deport or indefinitely detain immigrants with criminal records.
The thrust of the law may have seemed sensible - to quickly deal with people who have broken the law and might do so again. But the effect was sometimes inhumane, with families broken up because of a father's relatively minor offense, or immigrants who had already served a sentence facing years of additional detention when their countries of origin refused to take them back.
The US Supreme Court, to its credit, has stepped in to put some limits on INS power in such cases.
First, the court ruled that immigrants whose crimes predated the '96 law could apply for a waiver of deportation. Such waivers were routinely sought before the law changed five years ago. Some immigrants will thus be given greater legal protection, but those convicted of crimes committed after 1996 won't have the option of seeking a waiver.
Second, the court held that indefinite detention of immigrants violates basic constitutional protections that apply to all residents of the United States. If deportation can't be arranged, detention should be limited to six months, said the court.
In both these cases, a five-justice majority bridled at Congress's attempt to impose a harsh penalty - deportation or detention - without any recourse to judicial review. In effect, the court said the desire to deal decisively with unwanted aliens could not run roughshod over due process.
These court decisions ought to generate some rethinking in Congress. The immigration changes enacted in 1996 included some useful provisions. With the surge of immigration during the '90s, the INS needed strengthening. But the powers given the INS were too unrestrained, too likely to create injustices.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor