SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Thursday that asylum seekers who are turned away after an initial interview with U.S. immigration officials are entitled to challenge those actions in the U.S. court system.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said that a federal law which prohibits court appeals in such cases violates the constitutional right of habeas corpus.
The appeals court quoted the U.S. Supreme Court in calling habeas corpus, or the right of a prisoner to challenge the legality of his or her detention, "a right of first importance."
The panel ruled in the case of Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam of Sri Lanka, who sought asylum on the ground that he had been beaten and tortured because of his political views and feared persecution if returned to Sri Lanka.
Thuraissigiam was ordered to be deported, in a process known as expedited removal, after an asylum officer determined in a screening interview that he did not have a credible fear of persecution.
The law overruled by the appeals court allows for review of expedited removal by a supervisor and an immigration law judge, but in most instances prohibits any further review in the court system.
The appeals court sent the case back to a federal district judge in San Diego for further proceedings on Thuraissigiam's habeas corpus petition.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who represented Thuraissigiam, said in a statement, "The historical and practical importance of this ruling cannot be overstated.
"This decision reaffirms the Constitution's foundational principle that individuals deprived of their liberty must have access to a federal court," Gelernt said.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Steve Stafford said the government has "no comment at this time" as to whether it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
For the time being, unless it is successfully appealed to a larger 9th Circuit panel or the Supreme Court, the ruling applies within the nine western states of the 9th Circuit, including the southern border states of California and Arizona.
The only other appeals court to address the issue, the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit, ruled in 2016 that asylum seekers facing expedited removal could not file habeas corpus petitions. The Supreme Court declined to review that decision in 2017.
Thuraissigiam, a member of the Tamil ethnic minority, fled from Sri Lanka in 2016, made his way to Mexico, crossed the border near the San Ysidro port of entry south of San Diego on Feb. 17, 2017, and was arrested 25 yards north of the border by a customs officer that night.
He was placed in expedited removal status after an asylum officer determined he lacked a credible fear of persecution, a supervisor approved and an immigration judge affirmed by checking a box on a form. His deportation has been stayed by the appeals court until his case is concluded.
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