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Open justice


IMMIGRANTS who were wrongly ensnared in the post-9/11 law enforcement dragnet have learned a thing or two about the American justice system since the attacks.

Unfortunately, much of what they learned was bad.

Arrested and labeled "persons of special interest" by the U.S. government -- thus implying they had some connection to the investigation of the 2001 terrorist attacks and were security risks -- they were subjected to secret court hearings and held in detention without charge or bond. They were denied legal representation and expected to find lawyers on their own even though they were often held in detention centers far from home, with no access to relatives, much less lawyers.

Once cleared, those with lapsed immigration documents, or who had entered the country illegally, were deported in secret removal proceedings. Those released in this country went home stunned by the realization that the notion of due process no longer applied to them, and doubtful it ever would again.

This shameful treatment, the subject of much debate and many court challenges in the nearly four years since the attacks, got a welcome hearing last week before a House judiciary subcommittee considering legislation that would undo several egregious policies targeting immigrants.

The aptly named Civil Liberties Restoration Act would require the secretary of homeland security to serve those being held under immigration laws a Notice to Appear, a charging document, within 48 hours of arrest or detention; to bring them before a judge within 72 hours; and to give them bail hearings. The measure, which foundered last year, deserves consideration by the full House this year.

The legislation would also require that deportation proceedings be open to the public, thereby ending a practice that "undermines the transparency of government processes and public confidence in the justice of our system," as one witness at the hearing put it.

That the witness, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, supports the legislation sponsored by two liberal Democrats, Reps. Howard L. Berman of California and Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts, is an indication of the level of bipartisan dismay over many post-9/11 immigration laws. Those sentiments are shared by many Americans who strongly support national security efforts that are not detrimental to civil liberty.

This country's laws should not be applied under cover of secrecy. Congress should endorse this effort to bring them back into the open.

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