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The Supreme Court sides with the Biden administration in a fight over immigration

A U.S. law enforcement officer stands guard by a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas.
Allison Dinner
AFP via Getty Images
A U.S. law enforcement officer stands guard by a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas.

Updated June 23, 2023 at 5:00 PM ET

The U.S. Supreme Court handed President Biden's administration a victory in a long-running fight about how to enforce the nation's immigration laws.

The case concerned the Biden administration's attempt to set guidelines for whom immigration authorities can target for arrest and deportation. Texas and Louisiana sued to block the guidelines, arguing that they were preventing immigration authorities from doing their jobs.

The Supreme Court held by a vote of 8-1 that the states lacked standing to challenge the guidelines in the first place.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh described the legal challenge before the court as "an extraordinarily unusual lawsuit."

The states challenging the guidelines "want a federal court to order the Executive Branch to alter its arrest policies so as to make more arrests," Kavanaugh wrote. "Federal courts have not traditionally entertained that kind of lawsuit; indeed, the States cite no precedent for a lawsuit like this."

Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the court's liberals in the majority opinion. Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch each wrote separate, concurring opinions that reached the same conclusion, but offered a different legal rationale. Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented, arguing that Texas and Louisiana had met the requirements for standing and should have been allowed to sue.

"DHS looks forward to reinstituting these Guidelines"

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Alejandro Mayorkas welcomed the ruling, which clears the way for the enforcement guidelines he announced in 2021 to take effect.

"The Guidelines enable DHS to most effectively accomplish its law enforcement mission with the authorities and resources provided by Congress," Mayorkas said in a statement.

"DHS looks forward to reinstituting these Guidelines, which had been effectively applied by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to focus limited resources and enforcement actions on those who pose a threat to our national security, public safety, and border security," he said.

There is wide agreement that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have enough resources to detain or deport all of the roughly 11 million people in the country without authorization. So immigration authorities have to set enforcement priorities — and those priorities have swung sharply from one administration to the next.

During former President Trump's administration, ICE agents and officers were empowered to arrest and deport anyone who was living in the U.S. without legal authorization.

When the Biden administration took office, it put on the brakes. Instead of arresting and deporting anyone they encountered who was in the country without authorization, immigration authorities were given a very different set of priorities.

Under the new guidance, being present in the U.S. without legal authorization "should not alone be the basis" for immigration authorities to arrest or deport someone.

Secretary Mayorkas described the guidance at the time as a lawful exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

Mixed reaction to the ruling

But the announcement of the Biden administration's enforcement priorities prompted multiple lawsuits from immigration hardliners. They argue that those guidelines went well beyond what previous administrations had done to limit enforcement.

"This decision is outrageous," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote Friday in a post on Twitter, saying the decision would give the Biden administration "carte blanche to avoid accountability for abandoning enforcement of immigration laws. Texas will continue to deploy the National Guard to repel & turn back illegal immigrants trying to enter Texas illegally."

Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, celebrated the ruling as a resounding victory.

"This decision soundly rejects the misguided attempt by Texas and Louisiana to force the government to implement the most draconian immigration enforcement policy," said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, in a statement.

But some analysts said the implications of the decision might be limited.

"The court's decision was pretty narrow," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell Law School, in an interview with NPR. "From a larger legal perspective, it doesn't really resolve the issue of when states can and cannot sue to challenge federal policies, whether they're immigration or otherwise. And so the battle will continue on those fronts."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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