*This piece is part of the ACSblog symposium: “The Future of the U.S. Constitution”
by Steve Vladeck, Professor of Law, University of Texas School of Law
The so-called “entry fiction,” pursuant to which “arriving aliens” stopped at the border are treated, for at least some constitutional purposes, as if they are not actually on U.S. soil, has been a point of controversy in judicial doctrine and legal scholarship for generations—and remains so today. But the one point on which there has been common cause has been its inapplicability to individuals living in the United States—regardless of how they got here or their current immigration status. Indeed, the Supreme Court has so held in an unbroken line of cases stretching back to the 1880s, since a contrary reading would suggest that undocumented immigrants could be tried without due process; could be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment; and so on.
Among other things, these decisions, from Yick Wo v. Hopkins to Wong Wing v. United States to Mathews v. Diaz to Plyler v. Doe, have provided important if implicit bulwarks against a true nativist turn in constitutional law. Even during periods of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment, they have generally prevented the political branches from singling out undocumented immigrants for anything other than deportation. And if undocumented immigrants cannot be singled out for especially restrictive measures, it follows a fortiori that those with lawful immigration status cannot be, either.
But at the Supreme Court’s Conference earlier today, one of the appeals it was deciding whether to hear involves a direct assault on these precedents—and on the rights of undocumented immigrants living within the United States. Indeed, I fear it is no exaggeration to suggest that, if the justices leave the lower court’s ruling intact, it could open the door to a far more aggressive—and alarming—nativist turn in immigration enforcement on the home front.
The dispute in Castro v. U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Security arises from the 1996 immigration reform laws, which created a new category of “expedited removal” for individuals stopped at the border without proper documents. To give teeth to the “expedited” part of expedited removal, Congress provided for very limited judicial review in such cases—review that, among other things, does not allow for the judicial consideration of asylum claims such as those pressed by many of those caught up in the 2014 Central American migrant crisis, including the petitioners in Castro. And although courts initially construed these restrictions narrowly to not preclude access to writs of habeas corpus, Congress in 2005 narrowed their habeas authority in such cases, as well.
In Castro, 28 women (and their minor children) who made it into the United States before being arrested and placed in expedited removal proceedings argued that they were legally entitled to asylum (and, thus, to not being removed from the country). Because the 1996 immigration laws, as interpreted by the Justice Department and as amended in 2005, deprived them of the right to even press that claim in court, they argued that these laws violated the right to judicial review of their detention guaranteed by the Constitution’s Suspension Clause.