Supreme Court Sides With Biden on Ending 'Remain in Mexico' Asylum Policy

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A yellow truck carrying several people drives on the road.
Migrants from Latin America taking part in a caravan toward the US border arrive in Huixtla, Chiapas State, Mexico, on June 7, 2022. (Isaac Guzman/AFP via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Biden administration properly ended a Trump-era policy forcing some U.S. asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico.

The justices' 5-4 decision for the administration came in a case about the "Remain in Mexico" policy under President Donald Trump. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the decision and was joined by fellow conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh as well as the court's three liberal justices: Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

"It's significant because it reminds us that new presidents can bring new policies in," said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law. "If they follow the rules, they can implement those new policies at the most fundamental level. It means that elections matter, the president matters, and the policies that they're able to pursue matter. And so we see time and again, and it's worth reminding us of the importance of presidential elections in their impact on policy."

President Joe Biden suspended the program on his first day in office in January 2021. But lower courts ordered it reinstated in response to a lawsuit from Republican-led Texas and Missouri. The current administration has sent far fewer people back to Mexico than did the Trump administration.

The heart of the legal fight was whether immigration authorities, with far less detention capacity than needed, had to send people to Mexico or whether they had the discretion under federal law to release asylum-seekers into the United States while they awaited their hearings.

The Supreme Court ruling comes days after at least 53 migrants — including women and children — died of intense heat inside a trailer truck while being smuggled into Texas, as desperation mounts among asylum-seekers to cross.

"For asylum-seekers that have been waiting for years in the Mexican side of the border, this means a victory," said attorney Dulce Garcia, executive director of Border Angels in San Diego.

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"This means that there is hope that they can actually have their claim heard in front of an immigration judge while they remain in the U.S. side of the border rather than still in danger."

The Border Angels organization supports 17 migrant shelters in Tijuana and provides legal aid to residents.

About 70,000 people were enrolled in the program, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols, after President Donald Trump launched it in 2019 and made it a centerpiece of efforts to deter asylum-seekers.

After Biden's suspension of the program, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ended it in June 2021. In October, the department produced additional justifications for the policy's demise, to no avail in the courts.

The program resumed in December, but barely 3,000 migrants had enrolled by the end of March, during a period when authorities stopped migrants about 700,000 times at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democratic-led states and progressive groups were on the administration's side. Republican-run states and conservative groups sided with Texas and Missouri.

The case is Biden v. Texas, No. 21-954.

KQED's Farida Jhabvala Romero contributed reporting to this story.