Andrew Naughtie – The Independent March 23, 2020
Politico reports that the Department of Justice is asking legislators to grant it new powers on everything from the statute of limitations to asylum claims and court hearings. With the Trump administration having already been challenged in the courts on its efforts to allow indefinite detention of immigrants who apply for asylum, the new measures – if passed into law by Congress – could open up a whole new set of legal battles.
The documents reportedly request permission for judges and administration officials to be able to suspend court rules during an emergency.
Under the rules, whenever a court is closed due to “any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation” – as may soon happen in parts of the US as the pandemic rages – the attorney general would be able to call an indefinite halt to court proceedings, meaning those awaiting trial would remain in detention until proceedings were restarted.
The coronavirus epidemic has already been declared a national emergency, and states including California had declared their own states of emergency before that.
After the Politico report, condemnation of the request came swiftly from both parties. On the Republican side, libertarian-minded Kentucky senator Rand Paul tweeted “We absolutely must, must, resist government run amok taking advantage of a crisis. This is how your liberty dies. Stand up America and resist.” Utah senator Mike Lee wrote simply “OVER MY DEAD BODY”.
And on the Democratic side, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was equally blunt. Tweeting the original Politico article, she wrote: “Absolutely not”.
The issue of detention without charge or trial on national security grounds has been a running controversy since the Patriot Act was implicated after 9/11. A massive piece of legislation, it gave the government various new surveillance powers – and critics including the American Civil Liberties Union also said that section 412 of the act could allow indefinite detention of immigrants.
This section was never invoked until November 2019, when the Trump administration used it to prolong the detention of a Palestinian man whose sentence was about to expire.
The justice department’s requested measures would also allow the administration to place strict limits on who could apply for asylum in the US.
Not only would those testing positive for COVID-19 be blocked, but those “subject to a presidential proclamation suspending and limiting the entry of aliens into the United States” would also be barred. The administration has already begun denying all entry to illegal migrants crossing the US’s southern border regardless of whether they are applying for asylum or not.