Challenge to Biden Immigration Enforcement Guidelines Blocked by Supreme Court
On July 23rd, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Texas and Louisiana lack standing to challenge the Biden administration’s immigration enforcement guidelines in federal court. Although the ruling was based on a technical issue, it represents a major victory for the Biden administration as well as the majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are living and working and raising families in America under the shadow and constant threat of deportation.
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Biden administration in U.S. v. Texas. The case concerned an immigration policy that set priorities among certain groups of undocumented immigrants for arrest and deportation. The policy at issue stems from a memo issued by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in September 2021. In that policy, the government established a priority among immigration officials to focus arrest and deportation proceedings on three specific groups:
- Suspected terrorists
- Noncitizens found guilty of committing crimes
- People recently apprehended at the border
Others, the vast majority of the 11 million undocumented individuals currently living inside the nation’s borders, although still subject to arrest and deportation, could go about their lives with a greater sense of security knowing they would not be targeted for removal.
The states of Texas and Louisiana brought a lawsuit to challenge the policy in federal court, and a Texas federal judge did indeed strike down the policy, vacating it for the entire country. The Biden administration then appealed directly to the nation’s High Court, which agreed to hear the case without it going through the usual process of an intermediate appeal in the Fifth Circuit Court. However, the Court let the Texas judge’s order remain in place until it heard the case.
The Court’s review was supposed to answer three questions:
Did Texas and Louisiana have standing to bring the lawsuit in the first place? Standing is a legal doctrine that basically means the party bringing a lawsuit has sustained some harm that can be redressed in court.
Is the government required by law to detain noncitizens after release from prison for certain crimes and keep noncitizens in custody if they are subject to final deportation orders?
Did the federal district court judge in Texas have the power to block the policy on a nationwide level as he did?
In the end, the Court only answered the first question, which it did in a very brief (14-page) opinion. The Court noted that the executive branch traditionally has broad discretion when it comes to enforcing laws. Decisions regarding whether to arrest and prosecute have long been the province of law enforcement; courts (the judicial branch of government) can’t tell the executive branch how to manage its arrest and prosecution policies, and parties can’t therefore bring cases into court to force the executive branch to enforce the law.
The opinion was authored by Justice Kavanaugh and joined by all the other justices except for Justice Alito, who published a dissenting opinion that lamented the Court’s ruling leaves states that are “already laboring under the effects of massive illegal immigration even more helpless.”
Since the Court limited its ruling to the question of standing, it didn’t reach the merits of the case and decide whether the Biden policy is legal or not, but it remains in effect and unchallenged for now. The ruling can be seen as sympathetic to the government’s position, though. The administration’s stated rationale for issuing the policy in the first place was that it doesn’t have the resources to go after all the millions of people who could potentially be arrested and deported under current law. The court noted that this has long been the case and noted that presidents have had to prioritize for decades how they use federal resources in managing the issue of illegal immigration.
Had the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the states and struck down the policy, it would have had broad implications beyond immigration and reached federal law enforcement activities in every area, including how the feds enforce the nation’s drug laws, weapons laws, etc. In another ruling only a few days later, the High Court did rule that plaintiffs had standing to challenge the Biden administration’s federal student loan forgiveness program, and there the Court went so far as to strike down the policy.
The Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Texas was essentially one of separation of powers: the legislative branch writes the laws; the executive branch enforces the laws; and the judicial branch interprets the laws. The Court’s decision perhaps leaves open the door for Congress to assert its power in the way it writes the nation’s immigration laws to limit executive discretion or provide more resources tied to enforcement, but that’s a question for another day.