A policy that calls for all suspected undocumented immigrants to be shackled at the feet, waist, and wrists while appearing in immigration court violates constitutional bans against cruel and unusual punishment, argues a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups Monday.

The groups say the policy allows for immigrants to remain chained up for up to 12 hours the day they're due in court.

According to the lawsuit, the overwhelming majority of prisoners who show up in immigration courts have no violent criminal history. The lawsuit seeks to compel the Department of Homeland Security to make individual determinations about shackling rather than have a blanket policy. 

DHS officials declined to comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit applies only to immigrants appearing in San Francisco immigration courts. But attorneys who filed the lawsuit said Wednesday that they hope it prompts changes to the system in other cities.

"We'd like to convince them to follow their own policy and at least add some humanity to it and recognize it's a painful and hurtful thing to shackle people like that," said Paul Chávez, senior attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, one of the groups who filed the lawsuit.

The groups allege that shackling everyone at an immigration hearing amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit seeks class action status to represent prisoners transported to and appearing in immigration court in shackles in San Francisco.

"We want them to be able to say, 'No, we want this person shackled because they have a criminal history,' instead of shackling your nanny who happens to get swept up in a raid somewhere," Chávez said.

The lawsuit also alleges that prisoners suffer "physical pain and discomfort, embarrassment and humiliation, mental and emotional stress and a sense the detainee is being misjudged to be exceptionally dangerous person."

Chávez said that at one hearing, a defendant couldn't wipe away his tears because of his shackles, and was crying from embarrassment because his 8- and 10-year-old sons were in the courtroom.

Chávez said the practice also violates attorney-client privacy because immigrants are shackled together.

It's unclear how common the shackling of immigrants at immigration hearings is nationwide. The lawsuit says the practice isn't rampant across the country but does happen outside of San Francisco.

In Arizona, shackling immigrants in civil proceedings happens "rarely," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona.

But that's not the case for immigrants in Arizona processed through a program called "Operation Streamline," a fast-track program that speeds undocumented immigrants caught crossing the desert through accelerated legal proceedings.

At one such hearing in May, 70 suspected undocumented immigrants crowded a courtroom, their ankle and wrist shackles clanging. A federal judge called up groups of five to read them their rights and accept their guilty pleas to misdemeanor illegal entry. Most were sentenced to time served and likely would be taken to Mexico for deportation the same day.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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