By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday endorsed the U.S. government's authority to detain immigrants awaiting deportation anytime - potentially even years - after they have completed prison terms for criminal convictions, handing President Donald Trump a victory as he pursues hardline immigration policies.
The court ruled 5-4, with its conservative justices in the majority and its liberal justices dissenting, that federal authorities could pick up such immigrants and place them into indefinite detention anytime, not just immediately after they finish their prison sentences.
The ruling, authored by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, left open the possibility of individual immigrants challenging the 1996 federal law involved in the case, called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, on constitutional grounds - their right to due process - if they are detained long after they have completed their sentences.
The law at issue states that the government can detain convicted immigrants "when the alien is released" from criminal detention. Civil rights lawyers for two groups of plaintiffs argued that the language of the law shows that it applies only immediately after immigrants are released. The Trump administration said the government should have the power to detain such immigrants anytime.
It is not the court's job, Alito wrote, to impose a time limit for when immigrants can be detained after serving a prison sentence. Alito noted that the court repeatedly has said in the past that "an official's crucial duties are better carried out late than never."
Alito said the challengers' assertion that immigrants had to be detained within 24 hours of ending a prison sentence is "especially hard to swallow."
In dissent, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer questioned whether the U.S. Congress when it wrote the law "meant to allow the government to apprehend persons years after their release from prison and hold them indefinitely without a bail hearing."
The administration had appealed a lower court ruling in the case that favored immigrants, a decision it said would undermine the government's ability to deport immigrants who have committed crimes. Trump has backed limits on legal and illegal immigrants since taking office in January 2017.
The plaintiffs included two legal U.S. residents involved in separate lawsuits filed in 2013, a Cambodian immigrant named Mony Preap convicted of marijuana possession and a Palestinian immigrant named Bassam Yusuf Khoury convicted of attempting to manufacture a controlled substance.
Under federal immigration law, immigrants convicted of certain offenses are subject to mandatory detention during their deportation process. They can be held indefinitely without a bond hearing after completing their sentences.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a liberal-leaning court Trump has criticized in other cases, ruled in 2016 that convicted immigrants who are not immediately detained by immigration authorities after finishing their sentences cannot later be placed into indefinite detention awaiting possible deportation. The 9th Circuit said such immigrants could seek bond hearings to argue for their release.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)