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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped a turbulent debate over illegal immigration on Monday, turning away an appeal by a group of asylum-seeking Central American women and their children who aimed to clarify the constitutional rights of people who the government has prioritized for deportation.
The families, 28 women and 33 children ages 2 to 17 from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, had hoped the justices would overturn a lower court's ruling preventing them from having their expedited removal orders reviewed by a federal judge.
That Philadelphia-based court said the status of the families, all apprehended in Texas and later held in Pennsylvania, was akin to non-citizens who are denied entry at the border and they were not entitled to a court hearing to challenge that decision.
Immigration has become an even hotter topic than usual in the United States since President Donald Trump took office in January. His administration has ordered construction of a border wall with Mexico intended to curb illegal immigration, and plans to expand the number of people targeted for expedited removal, a process that applies to non-citizens lacking valid entry documents.
The families have said they were escaping threats, violence and police authorities unable or unwilling to help in their home countries.
Lead plaintiff Rosa Castro fled El Salvador to escape years of rape, beatings and emotional abuse by the father of her son, who was 6 years old when they arrived in the United States in 2015, according to court papers. Lesly Cruz, who also arrived in 2015, fled Honduras to protect her daughter from sexual assault by members of the Mara Salvatrucha armed gang, the court papers said.
The families were apprehended in Texas within hours of illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. After claiming asylum, they were determined by immigration judges to lack "credible fear" of persecution, and placed in expedited removal proceedings.
The families were detained at Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, where 12 women and their children remain. The others have been released under orders of supervision, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing them.
The women challenged in federal court the rejection of their asylum claims, alleging a violation of their right to due process under the U.S. Constitution.
In August, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said they may be treated the same way as non-citizens seeking initial admission to the United States, who do not have any constitutional rights of review if denied entry.
The women appealed to the Supreme Court.
There has been a 93 percent drop since December of parents and children caught trying to cross the Mexican border illegally into the United States, which U.S. officials attribute to the Trump administration's tough policies.
Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham