The United States Supreme Court has ruled to uphold an immigration policy set by the administration of President Joe Biden, which narrowed the scope of those prioritised for deportation.
The ruling on Friday addressed a challenge brought by Texas and Louisiana, two states that argued the more relaxed enforcement would encourage migration and thus stretch their resources thin.
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The Biden administration has argued that, with an estimated 11 million people living in the US without documentation, it is common for presidential administrations to set enforcement priorities.
Under the Biden policy, authorities were ordered to prioritise apprehending and deporting non-US citizens deemed to be a threat to national security, public safety or border security. Those who had lived in the US over the long term without issue were de-prioritised.
Announced shortly after Biden took office in 2021, the approach represented a departure from the hardline enforcement policies pursued by former President Donald Trump.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal and rights advocacy group, called the ruling was a “welcome step in the process to reimagine our immigration enforcement priorities”.
“Immigrants of all nationalities, backgrounds and walks of life are contributing members of our communities,” said Efrén Olivares, deputy legal director of the organisation’s Immigrant Justice Project, in a statement. “With finite resources, the federal agencies tasked with enforcing immigration laws should be allowed to set common-sense, reasonable and lawful priorities.”
A federal judge in Texas had previously ruled in favour of Texas and Louisiana and briefly suspended the Biden administration policy.
The Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling, however, said the states did not have the authority to make the challenge. The states had alleged the federal government was making insufficient arrests or prosecutions in cases of irregular migration.
Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that lawsuits “run up against” the authority of the executive branch to enforce federal law.
“The executive branch — not the judiciary — makes arrests and prosecutes offenses on behalf of the United States,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito was the sole dissent in the case.
In a separate immigration-related ruling on Friday, the Supreme Court also rejected a challenge to a federal law that makes it illegal to “encourage or induce” a non-citizen to enter the country irregularly.
The 7-2 ruling invalidated a lower-court decision that said the law was unconstitutional. It had been challenged on free speech grounds.
“Properly interpreted, this provision forbids only the intentional solicitation or facilitation of certain unlawful acts. It does not ‘prohibit a substantial amount of protected speech’ — let alone enough to justify throwing out the law’s ‘plainly legitimate sweep’,” conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote in the majority opinion.
Liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented.
Biden has faced Republican criticism for his immigration policies since taking office. The issue is expected to factor prominently in the upcoming 2024 elections.
Still, while Biden has generally softened enforcement for undocumented people already living in the US, rights groups have criticised his border policies.
In May, the Biden administration implemented new measures that made many migrants and refugees arriving at the US border with Mexico ineligible to seek asylum. The rule requires most asylum seekers to apply first in the countries they pass through or get pre-approval via the government-administered CBP One app.
Rights groups called the policy, which contained some exceptions, a return to a similar “safe third country” rule imposed under the Trump administration. Such policies, they argued, fly in the face of the US’s asylum obligations under international law and force migrants to seek more dangerous routes to enter the country.
The Biden administration has said the policy has so far proven effective, resulting in a steep drop in irregular border crossings since going into effect.