AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
A key pillar of President Biden's immigration policy gets challenged in court tomorrow. The fight is over the administration's priorities on who immigration authorities should arrest and deport. But critics led by the state of Texas say they prevent ICE officers from doing their jobs. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: One morning last July, Roman Perez pulled his truck out of his driveway in Bunkerville, Nev., on his way to work. He says officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were waiting to arrest him and put him in detention.
ROMAN PEREZ: When you there, your lives change 100%.
ROSE: Perez was detained for over a month. He worried about losing his thriving business as a handyman and about how he would support his wife and their three children, who are U.S. citizens. Perez told his 10-year-old son that he was working on a job far away and didn't know when he would be home.
PEREZ: I got to lie to him, and he get mad at me. He says, you should come home. I don't want you to be working out of town. We don't need that money (laughter). And he's 10 years old.
ROSE: Perez can laugh now, but at the time, things did not look good for him. Perez has an old drug conviction on his record, and an immigration judge had previously ordered his removal from the U.S. If he had been arrested during the Trump administration, more than likely, he would still be in detention or deported to Mexico.
But under the Biden administration, Perez is not a priority for enforcement because living in the U.S. illegally is no longer by itself enough reason to arrest or deport someone. His lawyer, Sylvia Esparza, says that's a big change.
SYLVIA ESPARZA: Practically speaking, it has helped a lot of people and a lot of people who really aren't enforcement priorities.
ROSE: In August, Esparza asked ICE to release Perez. A few days later, he was back with his family.
The Biden administration points to its new enforcement guidelines as a success, a tangible change that has improved the lives of immigrants all over the country, even as much of the administration's immigration agenda has been derailed by politics or blocked by federal judges appointed by former President Trump. Now these enforcement guidelines are in jeopardy, too, as a legal challenge against them heads to trial.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GREG ABBOTT: There are laws passed by the United States Congress that the president is not enforcing.
ROSE: That's Texas Governor Greg Abbott. His state has been leading the legal effort against the Biden administration's border and immigration policies. Conservatives are unhappy that the number of ICE arrests and deportations have fallen sharply and that local jails say they've been forced to release undocumented immigrants who previously would have been picked up and detained by ICE. But Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defends the new enforcement priorities.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We will not dedicate our limited resources to apprehend individuals who have been here in this country for many years, who have been contributing members of our communities.
ROSE: Mayorkas says ICE is now targeting threats to public safety and national security and exercising what's known as prosecutorial discretion, deciding which cases are worth pursuing and which are not. But some immigrants and their advocates complain that ICE is still pursuing cases against people who should not be enforcement priorities, while the administration's critics on the right say it's letting too many immigrants off the hook.
Lora Ries was a top Homeland Security official during the Trump administration. She's now with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. Ries says the administration is taking this idea of discretion way too far.
LORA RIES: Prosecutorial discretion is supposed to be the exception, not the rule. And this administration is using it as an excuse and as the rule to not enforce the law.
ROSE: Now the legal challenge from Texas and Louisiana is going to trial starting this week. It will be heard by a federal judge appointed by former President Trump, who has already tried to block the rules once before.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.