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The U.S. Supreme Court handed the Trump administration a major victory today. It ruled that those who enter the U.S. seeking asylum from persecution have no right to a federal court hearing. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The decision allows the Trump administration to first give only bare-bones hearings to thousands of immigrants who've claimed asylum and then to fast-track their deportations without ever allowing them to make their case before a judge.
That's what happened to a Sri Lankan farmer who sought asylum, telling immigration officials that he'd been abducted from his fields, arrested, blindfolded by men in a van, interrogated and beaten so badly with wooden sticks that he spent 11 days in hospital. Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam, who's Tamil - a long-persecuted ethnic minority in Sri Lanka - fled his country, taking seven months to get first to Mexico and then the United States in order to seek asylum.
The immigration officer who screened his case believed him, but because Thuraissigiam could not specify who arrested him, his asylum claim was denied and upheld by an executive branch official who's called an immigration judge. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals intervened on Thuraissigiam's behalf, declaring that the right to habeas corpus gives those detained the right to challenge their detentions in court and that, under the Suspension Clause of the Constitution, that right can only be suspended in times of invasion or rebellion.
But today, the court disagreed. Writing for the conservative court majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that neither the right of habeas corpus nor the right to due process of law requires those turned down in their initial asylum screening to get a hearing before a judge. This framework, he said, was properly authorized by Congress in a 1996 law and aimed at speeding deportations at the border. The vote was 7-2, but Alito's opinion was joined only by the court's four other conservatives.
Two of the court's liberal justices, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agreed on the bottom-line judgment but not on the language of the opinion, which they said swept too broadly. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, filed a strongly worded dissent. Today's opinion handcuffs the judiciary's ability to perform its additional duty to safeguard individual liberties, Sotomayor said; our constitutional protections should not hinge on the vicissitudes of political climate.
Thuraissigiam's lawyer, Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, said the Trump administration has so reigned in asylum officers and immigration judges with more and more restrictive guidelines that protections for asylum-seekers have been eviscerated.
LEE GELERNT: They have pretty much done sweeping changes to the asylum laws, that if all of them are upheld, there will essentially be no asylum at the southern border.
TOTENBERG: Doris Meissner served in top positions at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Reagan and Clinton administrations, twice heading up the department. While she says the bottom line of today's ruling is not a significant departure from past practices, the way the Trump administration has carried out screening for asylum-seekers has been a drastic departure, effectively making it impossible to win asylum for people even in the most dire situations.
DORIS MEISSNER: I would say that asylum, by now, pretty much exists in name only.
TOTENBERG: That, she says, is underscored by a new rule to be issued by the Trump administration this week. It proposes to do away with existing rules that had allowed asylum-seekers who've survived their initial screening and been in the U.S. for six months to work while they continue to wait for disposition of their cases, sometimes for years.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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