U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments on Biden's immigration guidelines The Biden administration wants immigration authorities to focus on threats to public safety, but a lower court said its guidelines went too far. Now the high court is hearing arguments in the case.

A fight over how to enforce immigration laws reaches the Supreme Court

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1139531185/1139640552" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments today in a long-running dispute over how to enforce this nation's immigration laws. The Biden administration wants to set guidelines around who can be arrested and deported by immigration authorities. But a group of states, including Texas, argue that those guidelines could prevent authorities from doing their jobs. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: For years now, the guidance about immigration enforcement has swung sharply from one administration to the next. Under former President Trump, immigration authorities were empowered to arrest and deport anyone who was living in the U.S. without legal authorization. Here's the acting director of ICE, Thomas Homan, testifying before Congress in 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS HOMAN: If you're in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable. You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried.

ROSE: When the Biden administration took office, it put on the brakes. Instead of arresting and deporting anyone they encountered, immigration authorities were given a whole new set of priorities. Here's Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in an interview last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We have guided our work force to exercise its discretion to focus on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.

ROSE: Mayorkas framed this approach as prosecutorial discretion. Since ICE doesn't have the resources to arrest or deport all 11 million people in the country without legal authorization, its officers should use their discretion, he argued, to focus on the biggest threats to the public. The president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Jeremy McKinney, agrees that's the right thing to do.

JEREMY MCKINNEY: You have to make choices. All that the Biden administration was attempting to do was make choices, just like every administration before it.

ROSE: There had been official immigration priorities at DHS before, but this announcement prompted a major backlash from immigration hard-liners who argue these priorities go far beyond what any previous administration had done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOMAN: They went way left on this. So it's almost like the Immigration Nationality Act don't exist anymore.

ROSE: That's Thomas Homan, the former head of ICE, during an interview last year. Part of what outraged Homan and other hard-liners about the Biden administration's priorities is that simply being in the country without authorization is not, by itself, generally enough justification to arrest or deport someone. Christopher Hajec is with the Immigration Reform Law Institute in Washington, which filed a friend of the court brief before the Supreme Court.

CHRISTOPHER HAJEC: Saying that someone cannot be removed just because they're an illegal alien is a drastic change in our immigration law, and it's not within an agency's power to do that. Only Congress could do that.

ROSE: That's an argument that the states of Texas and Louisiana made in court. A federal judge in Texas agreed and threw out the administration's priorities in June. But former DHS officials of both parties are worried about the implications of that ruling. They also filed a brief expressing their concerns to the Supreme Court.

JULIE MYERS WOOD: Not everyone can be arrested or put in proceedings, and so tough choices have to be made.

ROSE: Julie Myers Wood was the head of ICE during the George W. Bush administration. She's also a former federal prosecutor. Wood says every law enforcement agency exercises discretion about how to deploy its limited resources, and those decisions are too important to leave up to individual field offices.

WOOD: What you don't want to see is a situation where a particular office is focusing on all non-criminal arrests simply because they are easier or more convenient to the detriment of individuals that have serious criminal histories.

ROSE: Wood says she might not have chosen the same priorities as Secretary Mayorkas, but it's clearly his call to make.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIA KENT'S "TOURBILLON")

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.