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In the very last decision of its latest term, the Supreme Court released a major ruling that not only clears a barrier to ending a signature policy of the Trump administration but also signals that the future of immigration policy is in the hands of the electorate.
In Biden v. Texas, the Supreme Court rejected an effort to prevent the current president’s rollback of a Trump-era policy that requires asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. southern land border to be returned to Mexico while their claims were being processed.
The 5-4 decision means that the case will be returned to the lower courts. But it also makes clear that whoever is control of the White House has the power to change directions in immigration policy – even drastic reversals of policy. It follows that presidents can do the same in other substantive legal areas as well, such as civil rights and environmental protection.
The rights (and wrongs) of remain
The issue in Biden v. Texas was whether the Biden administration could dismantle a Trump administration policy formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols but widely referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
As part of an array of immigration enforcement measures, the Trump administration announced the policy in late 2018 in response to numbers of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the Migrant Protection Protocols came under scrutiny amid concerns over the safety and conditions to which asylum seekers were subjected in camps under the supervision of Mexican authorities. Human Rights Watch found the policy sent “asylum seekers to face risks of kidnapping, extortion, rape, and other abuses in Mexico” while also violating “their right to seek asylum in the United States.”
Yet an attempt by the Biden administration to eliminate the protocols was barred by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The circuit judges found that the Biden administration had violated immigration law requiring the detention of asylum seekers.
The Supreme Court rejected this ruling. In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts – joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh – the court held that the Biden administration’s decision to terminate the Migrant Protection Protocols did not violate federal immigration law. The state of Texas had argued that ending the “Remain in Mexico” policy violated a provision that every asylum seeker entering the country be returned or detained.
In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito argued that the statute requires mandatory detention of migrants at the border. Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s dissent expressed the view that the Supreme Court lacked the jurisdiction and that the case should be remanded back to the lower courts.
Avoid the arbitrary, cease the capricious
The Supreme Court’s decision means the case will be sent back to the lower court to decide, but with the removal of a major legal obstacle preventing Biden from ending the “Remain in Mexico” policy. The Supreme Court held that the immigration law does not require mandatory detention of all asylum seekers while their claims are being decided.
But moreover, the court made clear that the president has the discretion to change direction in immigration policy and continue, or end, policies of the previous president.
That might seem self-evident. But it comes after another 5-4 decision penned by Chief Justice Roberts – 2020’s Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, which held that a president could not act irrationally in changing immigration policy.
In that decision, the Supreme Court found that the Trump administration had acted in an arbitrary and capricious fashion in rescinding the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – or DACA – policy. That policy provided limited legal status and work authorization to undocumented migrants who came to the country as children, so-called Dreamers.
In the court’s view, the Trump administration had not adequately considered the interests of the migrant children in deciding to rescind the policy and had given inconsistent reasons about the basis for the rescission.
That ruling provided fuel for states to challenge the Biden administration when it attempted to roll back some Trump-era policies. For example, Arizona, along with other states, challenged Biden’s attempt to abandon a proposed rule change by the previous administration that would tighten the requirements on low- and moderate-income noncitizens seeking to come to the U.S. Although the Supreme Court initially accepted review of the case, it ultimately dismissed the appeal and declined to decide the merits.
In the end, the Supreme Court’s decision in Biden v. Texas stands for the simple proposition that presidential elections matter when it comes to government policy. As long as an incumbent administration follows the rules – including rational deliberation of the policy choices in front of it – it can, the Supreme Court has said, change immigration policy.
Kevin Johnson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.