The Supreme Court on Friday relaunched the Biden administration’s immigration enforcement guidelines by an 8-to-1 vote, saying states that dispute the policy are ineligible to sue.
The decision was a major victory for the administration, which has struggled to balance control of the southern border with humane treatment of immigrants. In allowing the administration to prioritize the arrests of immigrants, the court recognized the difficulty of the problem and the leading role the executive must play in resolving it.
The ruling also signaled skepticism about challenges to immigration measures brought by states. Between allowing Texas and the federal government to establish such policies, the majority suggested, a national response is warranted.
More broadly, the ruling set new limits on partisan lawsuits brought by states challenging federal programs, which have been on the rise recently.
« If the court has cleared this lawsuit, » Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh he wrote for five judges, “we may anticipate complaints in future years about the executive branch’s alleged underenforcement of any similarly worded law, whether drug laws, gun laws, obstruction-of-justice laws, or the like. We refuse to initiate the federal judiciary down this uncharted path.
The guidelines, issued in 2021 by the Department of Homeland Security, set priorities for which unauthorized immigrants should be apprehended and focus on « national security, public safety and border security ».
The new rules sought to undo sweeping policies by the Trump administration, which pledged to « unchain » immigration and customs law enforcement officers and said anyone in the country without legal documentation could be taken targeted for ejection. Under its guidelines, the Biden administration said, ICE will instead focus on threats to national security and those who have recently crossed the border.
In the later years of the Obama administration, ICE agents prioritized undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Before an ensuing drop in deportations, Obama carried out more than 409,000 removals in 2012, prompting immigration advocates to call him the « chief deporter. »
“I think that was a big mistake,” Biden said of the previous Obama-era approach during the 2020 presidential campaign. Republicans, however, seized on the new guidelines, as well as record crossings on the Southwest border, to portray him as weak regarding law and order.
Texas and Louisiana sued to block the guidelines, which allowed many immigrants with criminal records to remain free as their cases progressed, violating a federal law they said made detentions mandatory.
In his opinion, Judge Kavanaugh said the court failed to address whether the administration was meeting its legal obligations under the immigration laws and ruled only that the challengers, Texas and Louisiana, did not have standing. to take the matter forward.
« States have filed a spectacularly unusual lawsuit, » he wrote. “They want a federal court to order the executive branch to change its arrest policies so more arrests are made. Federal courts have not traditionally entertained these types of lawsuits; indeed, states cite no precedent for a lawsuit like this.
He said Congress was free to act if it was not satisfied with the Biden administration’s approach. « Congress has a number of tools to analyze and influence such policies: oversight, appropriations, lawmaking, and Senate confirmations, to name a few, » Justice Kavanaugh wrote.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined Justice Kavanaugh’s majority opinion, as did the three liberal members of the court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett voted with the majority but did not adopt the reasoning. Only Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.
The states argued that they suffered financial damage from the Biden administration’s policy, which they said required them to incarcerate or provide social services to people they said should be arrested.
Judge Kavanaugh said those injuries were too indirect. He added that there were practical problems.
« The executive branch (i) invariably lacks the resources to arrest and prosecute every lawbreaker and (ii) must constantly react to and adapt to the changing public safety and public welfare needs of the American people, » he wrote. , adding that « the executive branch does not possess the resources necessary to arrest or remove all non-citizens » covered by the laws that states have tried to enforce.
That has been the case, he wrote, over the past 27 years under five presidential administrations.
Approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States, and successive administrations have issued enforcement guidelines to prioritize arrest and deportation, typically focusing on threats to national or public security.
Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justices Thomas and Barrett, arrived at the same result as the majority by a different route. The problem, he wrote, was that the courts were powerless to fix the states’ grievances.
In dissent, Judge Alito wrote that the majority had granted too much leeway to the executive.
« To put it simply, Congress has passed legislation requiring the arrest and detention of certain illegal immigrants whose release it was thought would endanger public safety, » he wrote. “The DHS Secretary categorically disagrees with this requirement. He prefers a more flexible policy ”.
Justice Alito continued, “And the court’s response today is that the executive’s policy choice prevails unless Congress, withholding funds, refusing to confirm presidential nominations, threatening impeachment and removal, etc., can win a test of strength. Relegating Congress to these disruptive measures radically alters the balance of power between Congress and the executive. »
Last summer, Judge Drew B. Tipton of the Federal District Court of Victoria, Texas, issued a sentence which blocked use of the guidelines nationwide. A unanimous panel of three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, refused to stay the sentence.
During the past fiscal year, ICE made more than 142,000 arrests, nearly double from the previous year. The agency conducted more than 72,000 deportations, a slight increase from the previous year when the administration reached a pandemic low.
In the Supreme Court, the administration argued that the Department of Homeland Security must be able to prioritize given that the federal government does not have the resources to arrest and seek to deport all unauthorized immigrants. A law that appeared to mandate some deportations using the phrase « they must remove, » the administration said, was unworkable because Congress had not allocated the resources to allow the executive branch to carry out that vast undertaking.
Attorneys in two states responded that the court’s ruling in United States v. Texas, No. 22-58, would have affected perhaps 80,000 people. But they admitted there weren’t enough beds to hold so many immigrants.
Friday’s ruling may have undermined the court’s 2007 decision Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agencywhich called for the Bush administration to address climate change 5 to 4. It included a cryptic sentence, saying that states are « entitled to special solicitude in our permanent review. »
This prompted one of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s most memorable disses. law ».
In his dissent Friday, Justice Alito suggested that majority opinion may have implicitly reversed the 2007 decision. « Has this monumental decision been quietly buried? » he asked.
The court is expected to rule next week on a challenge by several states to the Biden administration’s plan to cancel about $400 billion in student debt. There are substantial questions about the states’ position in that case, and Friday’s ruling may give the administration some cause for optimism.
Miriam Jordan AND Zolan Kanno-Young contributed report.