Last Thursday, the Supreme Court saved more than 700,000 immigrants from the Trump administration’s nativist buzz saw. The court ensured that these immigrants, who were brought to the United States by their undocumented parents as children, would continue to be protected by an Obama administration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, sparing them from deportation to countries many could not even remember. The court split 5–4, with Chief Justice John Roberts throwing his lot in with the liberals to find that Donald Trump’s rescission of DACA had been unlawful—largely because it had been carelessly effectuated, defended pretextually, but also because hundreds of thousands of young people had altered their lives in reliance on the promise that they would be immune from deportation.
In a key section of the majority opinion, Roberts highlighted the humanity of these young undocumented people, as well as the hopes and dreams of their families: “Since 2012, DACA recipients have enrolled in degree programs, embarked on careers, started businesses, purchased homes, and even married and had children, all in reliance” on DACA, Roberts wrote, quoting from briefs in the case. “The consequences of the rescission … would ‘radiate outward’ to DACA recipients’ families, including their 200,000 U.S.-citizen children, to the schools where DACA recipients study and teach, and to the employers who have invested time and money in training them.” The chief justice evinced frustration that the Trump administration seemingly took none of those very human interests into account.
One week later, on Thursday morning, the high court proved that its sympathies for immigrants seeking better lives are limited. In a 7–2 ruling, the justices approved the Trump administration’s draconian interpretation of a federal law that limits courts’ ability to review deportation orders. This time around, the court did not note immigrants’ contributions to the nation or acknowledge their humanity in any way. Having last week treated one class of immigrants like actual people, the court on Thursday pivoted back to callous cruelty. All of the chief justice’s kind words about DACA recipients seemingly do not apply to immigrants who—according to the executive branch—do not deserve asylum.
Thursday’s case, Department of Homeland Security v. Thuraissigiam, involves an asylum-seeker from Sri Lanka named Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam who faces likely death if he is deported because he is Tamil. Thuraissigiam was apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol while trying to cross at the southern border in 2017. After an asylum officer and immigration judge rejected his claims, Thuraissigiam was slated for “expedited removal.” Federal law bars courts from reviewing that deportation order. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the law unconstitutional as applied to Thuraissigiam under the Constitution’s suspension clause, which limits the government’s ability to restrict habeas corpus—the centuries-old right to contest detention before a judge.
At the Trump administration’s request, the Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit, with Justice Samuel Alito writing a maximalist majority opinion for the five conservatives and Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg proffering a narrower concurrence. Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned a lengthy, vivid dissent joined by Justice Elena Kagan that accused the majority of flouting more than a century of precedent and “purg[ing] an entire class of legal challenges to executive detention.” (In his own opinion, Alito dismissed Sotomayor’s criticisms as mere “rhetoric.”)
This outcome strips due process from immigrants seeking asylum, who now have even fewer rights to a fair adjudicatory process under an expedited system that already afforded them minimal protections. It will also embolden the Trump administration to speed up deportations for thousands of people with no judicial oversight. Under this now court-approved system, immigrants fleeing their home country must undergo a “credible fear” interview, at which they must explain to a federal officer why they qualify for asylum. (The Trump administration has allowed Customs and Border Protection agents—not trained asylum officers—to conduct credible fear interviews.) If the officer finds no “credible fear of persecution,” their supervisor reviews the determination, as does an immigration judge (who is not a traditional judge but rather an employee of the executive branch appointed by the attorney general). If these individuals find no credible fear, the immigrant is thrown into “expedited removal”—that is, swiftly deported in a matter of weeks. They may not contest the government’s “credible fear” determination before a federal court. It is this extreme rule that Thuraissigiam challenged as a violation of habeas corpus and due process.
Alito breezily dismissed Thuraissigiam’s individual claims by stripping a broad swath of constitutional rights from unauthorized immigrants. First, he declared that habeas corpus does not protect an immigrant’s ability to fight illegal deportation orders. Sotomayor fiercely contested this claim, citing an “entrenched line of cases” demonstrating that habeas has long protected the right of individuals—including immigrants—to challenge illegal executive actions in court. Second, Alito held that unauthorized immigrants who are already physically present in the United States have not actually “entered the country.” Thus, they have no due process right to challenge the government’s asylum determination. Sotomayor noted that this holding departs from more than a century of precedent by imposing distinctions drawn by modern immigration laws on the ancient guarantee of due process.
The upshot of the decision will mean almost certain death for Thuraissigiam and others like him. Thuraissigiam faced brutal persecution in Sri Lanka, a fact Alito did not seem to understand at oral arguments. Various officials in the executive branch shrugged off that persecution. Thuraissigiam just wants an opportunity to prove to a federal judge that these officials violated the law by denying his asylum claim. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, he cannot. Nor can the many immigrants thrown into expedited removal by the Trump administration, which has used the process as a tool to speed up deportations across the country. Just two days ago, a federal appeals court cleared the way for the government to expand expedited removal beyond immigrants intercepted near the border to those apprehended anywhere in the nation. The administration has shown little interest in carefully considering whom it’s deporting; now many of those decisions will be rubber-stamped by executive officers and left unscrutinized by the federal judiciary.
Alito not only waved away these galling consequences; he seemed to laugh at them. Not for a moment does he appear to believe that asylum-seekers may be genuinely in fear for their lives. Among the many bon mots dropped by Alito in his opinion, he wrote: “While [Thuraissigiam] does not claim an entitlement to release, the Government is happy to release him—provided the release occurs in the cabin of a plane bound for Sri Lanka.” Given that Thuraissigiam claims he will likely be tortured to death if he is sent back to Sri Lanka, it’s not clear that line means what he thinks it does. Throughout the opinion Alito refers to Thuraissigiam as either “alien” or “respondent” and appears simply incapable of imagining that his claims are truthful.
It’s easy to miss the massive erosion of asylum-seekers’ rights in the victory last week around the triumph of DACA. But in some ways, it’s the most American outcome in the world to view DACA beneficiaries as more human because they have gone to school here and birthed children here, while scoffing at asylum-seekers, who, as part of a lengthy tradition under both constitutional and international law, simply ask the U.S. government to save their lives. Roberts, who seemed so attuned to the hardships of DACA recipients, joined Alito’s merciless opinion in full; in fact, the chief justice assigned the opinion to Alito, who has become the court’s staunchest crusader against immigrants’ rights.
The court’s split shows that a majority of justices think immigrants like Thuraissigiam are not the productive young people of the DACA case, with financial and familial ties to all that makes America great, but rather faceless masses cynically manipulating America’s generous asylum policy and overwhelming its immigration system. They believe these people do not deserve an iota of sympathy, let alone due process. That is already how many border agents viewed these immigrants: not as humans with rights, but as fraudulent parasites. The Supreme Court has now transformed that vision into law—and, in the process, allowed the executive to send more persecuted people to their deaths without even a meaningful day in court.