Office of Legal Counsel (US Dept of Justice) 1994 Legal Opinion, “Whether the Interdiction of Undocumented Aliens Within United States Territorial Waters Constitutes an Arrest Under Section 287(a)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act”

This post will be of little interest to most people, but I wanted to give an online home to this US Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (“OLC”) legal opinion issued on April 22, 1994 [22 April 1994 OLC Opinion] and which we obtained last month pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to OLC in September 2009.

The legal opinion, “Whether the Interdiction of Undocumented Aliens Within United States Territorial Waters Constitutes an ‘Arrest’ Under Section 287(a)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act,” concludes that “[t]he interdiction within the territorial waters of the United States of illegal aliens entering or attempting to enter the United States is not an ‘arrest’ of such aliens within the meaning of INA § 287(a)(2).”

By concluding that an interdiction within US territorial waters does not constitute an arrest under US immigration laws, the 1994 legal opinion re-affirmed a 1993 OLC legal opinion that aliens interdicted within the 12 mile territorial sea zone are not entitled to hearings before an immigration judge which in turn means that such aliens are not able to seek protections under US immigration law, including protection against refoulement. The 1993 memo stated, inter alia, that “the State Department has advised us of its view that the United States’s international law obligations under the Protocol do not require it to provide … hearings to aliens who have merely arrived in its territorial waters.”

This rationale was extended by a 1996 OLC legal opinion to interdictions that occur within the “internal waters” of the US.  “Internal waters” under US law include such bodies of water as “the straits between the Florida Keys [and] portions of the Chesapeake Bay.”

Since 1992, the US has maintained the position that its obligation to apply Article 33 non-refoulement protection does not extend to persons encountered outside US territory in international waters.  While asserting it is not obligated to extend Article 33 protection to persons encountered in international waters, within the 12 mile territorial sea, or within internal waters, the US does extend Article 33 protection to interdicted migrants on a discretionary case-by-case basis.

Click on this link, 1994 OLC Opinion, for newly released 1994 OLC legal opinion: “Whether the Interdiction of Undocumented Aliens Within United States Territorial Waters Constitutes an ‘Arrest’ Under Section 287(a)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act,” Memorandum from Office of Legal Counsel, US Department of Justice (22 April 1994).

Click here for 1993 OLC legal opinion: “Immigration Consequences of Undocumented Aliens’ Arrival in United States Territorial Waters,” Memorandum from Office of Legal Counsel, US Department of Justice (13 October 1993).

Click here for 1996 OLC legal opinion: “Rights of Aliens Found in US Internal Waters,” Memorandum from Office of Legal Counsel, US Department of Justice (21 November 1996).

Click here for Executive Order No 12807 (29 May 1992) containing, inter alia, US interpretation of its Article 33 obligations in regard to persons encountered in international waters.

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