Supreme Court (U.S.)

Supreme Court allows Biden to end Trump-era 'Remain in Mexico' policy

Pete Williams
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US Border Patrol agents check and search migrants from Guatemala after they turned themselves over to authorities at the US-Mexico border May 12, 2021 in Yuma, Arizona.
Ringo Chiu | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court handed President Joe Biden a victory Thursday, ruling that he can shut down a Trump administration program designed to restrict immigration at the southern border.

The court said in a 5-4 ruling that the Biden administration acted properly in seeking to end the "Remain in Mexico" policy, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. It required people seeking asylum at the southern border, mainly from Central America, to wait in Mexico while their claims were decided.

From late January 2019 until Biden suspended the program, more than 68,000 people were shuttled back to Mexico. Tent cities sprang up near border entry stations on the Mexican side of the border. Human rights groups said hundreds of asylum-seekers were kidnapped, raped, tortured or assaulted.  

Immediately after taking office, Biden ordered an end to the program. He cited the dangerous conditions along the border, the difficulty migrants faced in getting help from lawyers in the United States and the complications the program produced for America's foreign policy dealings with Mexico.    

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Biden quickly shut it down, but Texas and Mississippi sued. They said the Trump-era program vastly reduced the surge of migrants at the southern border, decreasing the numbers coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by 80 percent. A federal court in Texas ruled for the states.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk for the Northern District of Texas said federal law required the government to send asylum-seekers back to Mexico if there was no room to detain them and if they cannot safely be allowed to wait in the U.S. for their claims to be evaluated. The Biden Department of Homeland Security, the judge said, failed to offer a sufficiently detailed explanation for why it wanted to abandon the policy.

Honduran caravan members look through through the fence at the US-Mexico border wall at Friendship park in San Ysidro, California on November 18, 2018. 
Sandy Huffaker | AFP | Getty Images

Kacsmaryk issued an injunction to prevent the government from shutting the program down, and a federal appeals court agreed, so the Trump policy was once again in effect. Last August, the Supreme Court also declined to let the White House shut the program down while the court case was working its way through the appeals process.

The Justice Department argued that federal immigration law gave the government discretion to return migrants to Mexico while their asylum claims were considered or, on a case-by-case basis, to allow them to wait inside the U.S. if they would not present a danger. There simply isn't enough space, given limited funds provided by Congress, to detain them all, government lawyers said.

The federal government "has long exercised discretion to choose how best to allocated limited resources by prioritizing which noncitizens to take into custody and remove," they told the justices.