The Supreme Court began has begun examining whether thousands of migrants subjected to lengthy detentions in immigration centres should have a right to a bond hearing -- and the court's left-leaning wing appeared open to the possibility of granting conditional release.
The case already appeared in the US high court in November 2016, but the eight justices -- presumably deadlocked -- chose to defer hearing it until the current session, with the bench back at nine following the appointment of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Those challenging deportation after being arrested on the American border, or those arrested for a possibly deportable offence who choose to fight to stay, currently spend months or even years in detention.
The prolonged detentions are "basically saying that we're not a country of law, that we're a country of arbitrariness in detailing people, locking them up," said Justice Sonia Sotomayor yesterday.
It's a situation considered unacceptable by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which supports a class action launched by Mexican Alejandro Rodriguez and other immigrants.
"It is amazing that for a citizen who is arrested for committing a crime gets a hearing within 48 hours, at which if, the government can't demonstrate that this person affirmably poses a risk of flight or a danger to the community, he is out," said David Cole, ACLU National Legal Director.
"Yet for a foreigner, who has committed no crime, we detain them for six months without any hearing whatsoever."
Having arrived in the United States at a young age, Rodriguez was granted legal residence and worked as a dental assistant. But after he was arrested for driving a stolen vehicle and drug possession, authorities began deportation proceedings.
He spent over three years behind bars pending completion of removal proceedings, and was finally released after the ACLU filed a lawsuit. Rodriguez eventually won his fight to stay in the United States, according to the ACLU.
Asylum seekers face the same problem, among them Ahilan Nadarajah, who faced torture in his home country of Sri Lanka.
When he claimed asylum in 2001, authorities placed him in detention for four years and five months, his applications for release rejected time and time again. Eventually, he obtained American citizenship.
According to the ACLU, many people detained have strong arguments against deportation, and are not considered likely to disappear without a trace.
Judges seemed receptive to the ACLU's arguments in November -- but doubtful about the prospect of introducing bond hearings for anyone who has been detained six months.
But for those involved, these prolonged detentions are no different from a prison sentence. Immigrants are made to wear prison clothes, subjected to the searches and surveillance expected of a prison, and can also be placed in isolation.
Meanwhile, family visits are limited to a conversation behind a scream or by video link.
The top US court is to deliver their decision by the end of June 2018.
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