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Supreme Court hands big win to Trump on expelling immigrants seeking asylum

The 7-2 ruling allows people to be deported without judicial review of their cases.
Image: A U.S. Border Patrol agent gathers personal effects from immigrants before they were transferred to a McAllen processing center on in Los Ebanos, Texas.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent gathers personal effects from immigrants before they are transferred to a processing center in Los Ebanos, Texas, on July 2, 2019.John Moore / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday gave a victory to the Trump administration on the president's signature issue of immigration, ruling that some people seeking asylum in the U.S. can be deported without additional court hearings.

In a 7-2 vote, the court said people who fail to make a valid case for asylum in their initial screenings, by credibly claiming that they fear persecution at home, can be fast-tracked for deportation and cannot challenge that decision in federal court.

The ruling was a defeat for Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam of Sri Lanka, who was detained by federal agents 25 yards north of the U.S.-Mexico border. He said that as a member of his home country's Tamil minority, he faced harm if returned and had once been kidnapped and beaten, though he said he wasn't sure why he was assaulted.

When his asylum claim was rejected, he sought help in federal court by filing a habeas corpus petition, invoking the Constitution's guarantee against unlawful detention. But the Supreme Court said the option wasn't open to him.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that form of relief is intended to be used for those seeking release from detention, not as an avenue to get into federal court. And other constitutional rights of due process do not automatically apply to migrants simply because they set foot on U.S. soil and have not been legally admitted.

In their dissent, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan said the court was wrong to rule that constitutional protections don't apply to asylum-seekers "who challenge the procedures used to determine whether they may seek shelter in this country or whether they may be cast to an unknown fate." The decision "increases the risk of erroneous immigration decisions."

Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, which represented the Sri Lankan man, said the ruling "fails to live up to the Constitution's bedrock principle that individuals deprived of their liberty have their day in court, and this includes asylum-seekers." As a result, he said, "some people facing flawed deportation orders can be forcibly removed with no judicial oversight, putting their lives in grave danger."

The Trump administration has said the U.S. asylum system is abused and that most claims turn out to have no merit.

In the past, undocumented migrants could be subject to quick deportation, without federal court hearings, if they were detained within 14 days of entry and within 100 miles of the border. The administration wants to apply that rule to people anywhere in the U.S. within two years of entering the country.