Feds to limit use of shackles at immigration court

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Federal authorities will limit the use of shackles on immigrants who appear before immigration judges under a settlement of a class-action lawsuit approved Thursday.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will avoid shackling immigrants at the San Francisco immigration court in many hearings. Immigrants will still be shackled at a type of brief, procedural hearing in which several detainees are addressed at the same time.

The settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg, applies only to the San Francisco court, which serves more than 2,000 immigrants a year who are in ICE custody at three county jails in Northern California. The federal agency said Thursday that conditions vary significantly in courts across the country and that it disagreed with a "one-size-fits-all" nationwide policy.

The lawsuit, filed in 2011 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and others, says detainees at the San Francisco court wore metal restraints on their wrists, ankles and waists and that most were bused from jails several hours away, spending hours in shackles before, during and after their hearings.

Under the settlement, detainees will not be restrained at bond or merit hearings unless they pose a safety threat or risk of escape. Except in limited circumstances, they will remain shackled at master calendar hearings, which are held for larger numbers of immigrants for brief, procedural issues like scheduling.

ICE said in a statement that it was "committed to preserving the dignity and welfare of all those in our custody. The agency is also obligated to ensure the safety of the public and employees visiting or working in federal buildings that house court proceedings. ICE has worked with the plaintiffs to arrive at an agreement which affords the agency the flexibility to do both."

ICE said it would work on guidelines in courts outside San Francisco "that best serve both the interests of the agency and those in our custody." Plaintiffs hailed the settlement as an important victory.

"In addition to securing fairer hearings for detained immigrants in Northern California, we expect U.S. immigration officials will now think twice before shackling immigration detainees for their court hearings elsewhere in the country," said Julia Harumi Mass, an attorney for the ACLU, which sued federal agencies along with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the law firm Wilson, Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

Immigration courts are staffed by judges working for the U.S. Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, not the judiciary. The judges decide whether immigrants can remain in the country.

ICE houses more than 30,000 immigrants in detention facilities nationwide, many of which have immigration courts inside. In Northern California, detained immigrants are bused from leased jails in Contra Costa, Sacramento and Yuba counties to a federal building in downtown San Francisco.

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