US Supreme Court rules against SL Tamil in landmark asylum case

Saturday, 27 June 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Hassina Leelarathna in 

Los Angeles, USA

The US Supreme Court in a landmark decision today voted in favor of the administration in its appeal against a lower court ruling that allowed a Sri Lankan the right to have a judge review the government’s handling of his asylum bid.

The justices ruled in favor of the Trump administration in its appeal of a lower court ruling that a Sri Lankan farmer named Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam had a right to have a judge review the government’s handling of his asylum bid. In essence, the Supreme Court ruling upholds existing law that asylum seekers who are turned down by immigration officials do not have a right to make their case to a judge.

The ruling written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito enhances the US government’s ability to quickly deport illegal immigrants with limited judicial review and will impact thousands of asylum seekers. Justice Samuel Alito, found that limiting judicial scrutiny in this rapid deportation case, known as expedited removal, did not violate key safeguards of individual liberty in the US Constitution. The vote was 7 to 2. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.

On 17 February, 2017, Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam was apprehended by a US Customs and Border Protection officer at the southern US-Mexico border four miles west of the San Ysidro, California, port of entry. He claimed he faced a “credible fear of persecution” if returned to Sri Lanka, and was referred to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to be interviewed.   

An asylum officer determined that he had not established a credible fear of persecution and a supervisor approved the decision. Thuraissigiam then requested review by an immigration judge who affirmed the negative credible fear and returned the case to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for Thuraissigiam’s removal.

In January 2018, Thuraissigiam filed a habeas petition in federal district court, naming as respondents DHS, several of its constituent agencies, and individual agency officials. Thuraissigiam argued that his “expedited removal order violated his statutory, regulatory, and constitutional rights,” sought to vacate the order, and requested relief in the form of a “new, meaningful opportunity to apply for asylum and other relief from removal.”

Thuraissigiam alleged that in Sri Lanka he had been harassed for supporting a Tamil political candidate and that in 2007, he was “detained and beaten” by Sri Lankan army officers who warned him not to support the candidate. 

He further claimed that in 2014 when he continued to support the same candidate, government intelligence officers kidnapped, bound, and beat him while interrogating him about his political activities. Thuraissigiam alleged that he “was lowered into a well, simulating drowning, threatened with death, and then suffocated, causing him to lose consciousness.”

He said he had been savagely beaten in Sri Lanka by men who had blindfolded and abducted him and that he had spent 11 days in a hospital recovering from his injuries. While the asylum officer “believed” Mr. Thuraissigiam, he rejected his request because he could not identify the assailants or definitively establish their motives.

Subsequently an immigration judge decided Thuraissigiam did not have a credible fear of persecution in Sri Lanka and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began expedited removal proceedings.

His case was then taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on the basis that the current process where potential asylum seekers only get an administrative officer examining their case with no neutral federal judge is flawed and that Thuraissigiam has a right to have his case heard before a federal court.

In a win for Thuraissigiam and ACLU, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in March 2019 that asylum seekers are entitled to federal court review of their expedited removal orders. However, in October, the Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court to review the decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Court agreed to review the appeals court ruling that migrants targeted for quick deportation have the right to make their claims before a federal court.

Justice Alito in his opinion for the majority, rejected the lower court’s ruling that the Constitution guarantees a “meaningful opportunity” for asylum seekers to make their case to a judge if they are turned down in an initial screening.

Alito said the system set up by Congress weeds out “patently meritless claims” and provides for quickly removing those making them. Most pass their initial screening, he noted, but those who do not have no additional recourse.

Responding to the ruling, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said in a press release: “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. This decision means that some people facing flawed deportation orders can be forcibly removed with no judicial oversight, putting their lives in grave danger.”