Justices seem divided over court access for asylum seekers

The Supreme Court appeared divided Monday over whether the government can deport people who fail initial asylum screenings without allowing them to make their case to a federal judge.

The court heard arguments in the case of a man who said he fled persecution as a member of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority but failed to persuade immigration officials that he faced harm if he returned to Sri Lanka. The man was arrested soon after he slipped across the U.S. border from Mexico.

The Trump administration is seeking a sweeping ruling that it could potentially use to deport millions of people, even those arrested far from the border and who have been in the country for years, said Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is representing the man at the Supreme Court.

Three conservative justices questioned whether a ruling in favor of the man, Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam, would clog the courts with a flood of immigration claims. Thuraissigiam was placed in quick deportation proceedings that prohibit people who fail initial interviews from asking federal courts for much help.

Chief Justice John Roberts reacted strongly when Gelernt told the court that tourists being prevented from entering the country to visit Disneyland would not try to take their cases to court.

“I don’t think the concern is people who want to come to go to Disneyland,” Roberts said.

Since a federal appeals court ruled in Thuraissigiam’s favor, nearly 10,000 have failed initial asylum proceedings, called credible fear interviews. Of those, only 30 have filed court cases, Gelernt said.

Justice Department lawyer Edwin Kneedler said the number was closer to 100 people and that there was “potential for a flood” if the high court rules against the government.

Several liberal justices seemed to be on Thuraissigiam’s side. If the government can deport him without a court hearing, court review to see if officials are acting lawfully “would seem fairly seriously undermined, wouldn’t it?” Justice Stephen Breyer said.

Kneedler said no one has a right to asylum. The limited review that Congress provided for when it created quick deportation proceedings, or expedited removal, is sufficient, Kneedler said.

A decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Thuraissigiam, 19-161, is expected before summer.

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