The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether thousands of Haitian refugees who entered the country illegally in recent years have any constitutional right to claim that government officials discriminated against them by holding them in detention centers without hearings.
The full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, overturning lower court decisions, ruled earlier this year that the Haitians have no constitutional rights to challenge any decisions by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The appeals court said the Haitians were "excludable aliens" detained as soon as they crossed U.S. borders, as opposed to illegal aliens arrested inside the country. The appeals court, echoing an argument pressed vigorously by the Reagan administration, said the government had acted to prevent "our losing control over our borders."
Attorneys for the Haitians appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that the INS had treated Haitians differently from other groups by detaining them for lengthy periods while routinely allowing other refugees to be released pending hearings on their applications for asylum.
The Haitians say they do not challenge the government's policy of jailing "excludable aliens," but only the authority of "low-level enforcement officials to discriminate invidiously."
INS officials have pointed out that both the trial and appeals courts have held that the INS was not discriminating against the Haitians.
Between 35,000 and 45,000 Haitians have arrived illegally in south Florida since December 1972 and the INS -- treating them as economic, not political, refugees -- started jailing new arrivals in 1981. Most of those jailed have been deported or released to U.S. "sponsors" pending hearings on their status.
Miami lawyer Ira J. Kurzban, an attorney for the refugees, said yesterday that about 250 Haitians are still detained at the Krome Detention Center in Miami. Thousands of others were released by a federal judge in 1982.
In his appeal to the high court, Kurzban argued that not since the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision upholding slavery in 1857 "has a federal court removed a group of persons altogether from the protection of the Constitution."
A decision in the case, Marie Lucie Jean v. Nelson is expected by early summer.
In another case involving illegal aliens, the justices agreed yesterday to decide if federal courts can require the INS to reconsider a decision to deport a Mexican couple living in Omaha, Neb., since 1974. An appeals court last year ordered the INS to reconsider their case.
Federal law gives the government discretion to allow aliens to remain in this country if they have been here for seven years. The government argues that the only way the couple has remained in this country that long is by filing "frivolous appeals." The case is INS v. Rios-Pineda.
In other action yesterday:
* The court agreed to decide whether the federal Education of the Handicapped Act requires public school officials to reimburse private school costs for parents who unilaterally decide to place a child with learning disabilities in a private school.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that a Burlington, Mass., couple, who transferred their son to a private school in 1979, was entitled to such reimbursement if a trial court rules the couple made the right decision in making the transfer.
The case is School Committee of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts.
* The justices agreed to decide whether an antiwar protester can be barred from entering military bases even when the public has been invited to the base as part of an open- house celebration. A lower court ruled that the First Amendment right to free speech protected the protester from arrest. The case is U.S. v. Albertini.
* The court also agreed to hear arguments in an antitrust case involving two companies that operate ski resorts near Aspen, Colo.. A federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that one company, which runs three of the four ski lifts in the area, was creating an illegal monopoly. The case is Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp.