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The U.S. government cannot keep certain immigrants awaiting possible deportation locked up at the Northwest Detention Center without a bond hearing, a federal judge has ruled.

Tuesday’s decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Jones comes in response to a class-action lawsuit filed last year on behalf of dozens of detainees at the Tacoma facility.

It accuses the Department of Homeland Security of routinely detaining immigrants whom its officers apprehend months, sometimes years — and in one case a decade — after they had resolved their state criminal cases and been released back into their communities.

While immigration officials begin proceedings to deport the detainees, the people are unjustly denied a hearing before an immigration judge who could determine whether they present a flight risk or a danger to the community, Jones wrote.

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His ruling potentially could affect dozens of the nearly 1,300 detainees at the Tacoma center — immigrants in the country both legally and illegally — and comes as four of them continue a nearly weeklong hunger strike over conditions at the facility.

“There can be no serious question that some of these aliens present no risk to their communities and no risk of flight, because some of them have been living in this country for decades and have families and careers,” the judge wrote.

“What the government thinks about a law that locks away peaceable family members without release, the court can only guess.”

Jones is referring to a provision in immigration law that requires the Department of Homeland Security to deny bond hearings to immigrants whom its officers take into custody immediately after they have completed sentences for certain crimes.

But, Jones said, Homeland Security has been applying this provision even to those who have resumed their lives on the outside — an interpretation so expansive that it violates the plain language of the statute.

The three lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit had completed sentences handed down by state courts, on mostly drug charges, and then were released, only to be apprehended by immigration officers between two and nearly 10 years later.

Two of the three men are legal permanent residents, who are subject to detention and deportation if convicted of certain crimes.

All three have since been released from the detention center on bond, although removal proceedings against them have still not been resolved, the judge noted.

Jones denied a motion by Homeland Security to dismiss the complaint.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whose attorneys represent the government in immigration cases, declined to comment.

Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which brought the suit along with the ACLU and the Seattle law offices of Gibbs Houston Pauw, welcomed the decision.

“It’s not that [ICE] doesn’t have the right to pick them up, but it must give them their day in court,” Adams said.

A bond hearing, he pointed out, “is not a free ticket out of jail.”

Jones’ ruling applies specifically to the Tacoma-based detention facility, and “could easily affect a couple hundred there right now,” Adams said.

But it could also have implications across the country, where two other class-action lawsuits already have been filed.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or On Twitter @turnbullL.

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