High Court Backs Limits on Asylum-Seekers Fighting Removal

Sri Lankan security forces approach the site after a vehicle parked near St. Anthony’s shrine exploded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Monday, April 22, 2019. Easter Sunday bombings that ripped through churches and luxury hotels killed more than 200 people.(AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Ruling Thursday against a Sri Lankan immigrant who survived an abduction and beating in his home country, the Supreme Court upheld federal limits Thursday on the challenges to deportation that asylum seekers can raise.

Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam is a member of the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic minority group, which has faced frequent government-led kidnappings and beatings known as “white van abductions.”

During his white van experience in 2014, Thuraissigiam was taken from the farm where he had been working and beaten with wooden rods until he fell unconscious. After 11 days in the hospital, Thuraissigiam fled Sri Lanka. He was apprehended the United States, just across the Mexican border in California. 

Determining that Thuraissigiam had not been able to identify his attackers’ motivations, however, federal immigration officials, and later an immigration judge, denied his request for asylum.

Thuraissigiam pushed back in a federal habeas petition, claiming that the immigration official who conducted his credible-fear interview applied the wrong standard and made significant procedural errors during the interview. 

These claims prevailed at the Ninth Circuit, but the Supreme Court ruled against Thuraissigiam 7-2 on Thursday, finding that courts are limited as to what parts of expedited removal proceedings they can review.

At issue in the case is a provision of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that prevents courts from considering an asylum seeker’s habeas petition challenging an immigration official’s determination that the immigrant did not show a credible fear of persecution in their home country. 

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority Thursday that Thuraissigiam’s interpretation would “extend the writ of habeas corpus far beyond its scope” as laid out in the Constitution. 

The President George W. Bush appointee wrote habeas was not understood at the time the Constitution was ratified to allow someone to remain in the country or “to obtain administrative review potentially leading to that result.” 

“Habeas has traditionally been a means to secure release from unlawful detention, but respondent invokes the writ to achieve an entirely different end, namely, to obtain additional administration review of his asylum claim and ultimately to obtain authorization to stay in this country,” Alito’s 36-page opinion states. 

Alito also noted allowing courts to review every facet of every asylum claim would gum up the expedited removal process. 

Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU who represented Thuraissigiam, said the decision will have grave consequences for people making similar claims going forward.

“This 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,” Gelernt said in a statement. “This decision means that some people facing flawed deportation orders can be forcibly removed with no judicial oversight, putting their lives in grave danger.” 

Justice Stephen Breyer hinted at this in a decision concurring in the judgment. While Breyer called it correct to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s holding, he said other cases could come up in the future that “may raise a host of difficult questions in the immigration context.” 

Thuraissigiam’s argument rested on the Constitution’s suspension clause, which states “the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” 

He argued habeas petitions are an important check on unfair decisions and anti-immigrant tides that have risen and fallen throughout the country’s history. 

“Congress has broad substantive latitude over the terms of immigration, but it cannot eliminate habeas review over legal claims challenging removal and oust federal courts from their historic role in our constitutional architecture,” Thuraissigiam argued in a brief to the court. “Otherwise, people’s liberty and lives — including those fleeing persecution — would hinge on the unreviewable decisions of administrative officers.”

But detailing centuries of case law and referring back to English common law, Alito wrote Thuraissigiam’s view of habeas goes well beyond the founders’ understanding. He also rejected Thuraissigiam’s separate arguments under the Constitution’s due process clause. 

Chief Justice John Roberts joined Alito in the majority, as did Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Like Breyer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg signed onto the judgment alone as applied to Thuraissigiam. 

In a 40-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority was turning its back on more than a century of the court’s precedent and spurning review of cases that raise issues “within the heartland of habeas jurisdiction going directly to the origins of the great writ.” 

“Today’s decision handcuffs the judiciary’s ability to perform its constitutional duty to safeguard individual liberty and dismantles a critical component of the separation of powers,” Sotomayor, who was joined in dissent by Justice Elena Kagan, wrote. 

The appointee of President Barack Obama accused the majority of “papering over the true nature” of Thuraissigiam’s claims in portraying them as outside of the scope of habeas relief. 

But even with this “improper framing,” Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion misinterprets cases going back to before the founding that show claims like Thuraissigiam’s can be reviewed in court. 

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately return a request for comment on the decision.

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