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Supreme Court hands the Biden administration a major victory on immigration policy


Today, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a challenge to the Biden administration's immigration guidelines, declaring that the White House is entitled to set priorities for arresting and deporting immigrants. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Today's decision is a big win for the Biden administration, which may now finally put its guidelines into effect. During the Trump administration, immigration agents were empowered to arrest and deport anyone who was living in the U.S. without legal authorization. When the Biden administration took office, it established guidelines to focus immigration arrests and deportations on dangerous criminals, suspected terrorists and those who have recently entered the country illegally. But Texas, along with some other Republican-dominated states, challenged those guidelines in court, blocking them for nearly two years.

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the states had no legal standing to sue in the first place. The vote was 8-1, with Justice Samuel Alito the lone dissenter. Writing for the court majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that state lawsuits arguing for more arrests and prosecutions run up against the executive branch's constitutional authority to enforce federal law and to decide how to prioritize and how aggressively to pursue different categories of offenders.

Kavanaugh pointed to the reality that, for the last quarter century, no administration - Republican or Democratic - has had the resources to deport the millions of unlawful immigrants now living in the United States. In this case, he concluded, the states have brought an extraordinarily unusual lawsuit. They want a federal court to order the executive branch to alter its arrest policies so as to make more arrests, but there is no history or tradition of the courts entertaining such a lawsuit, he said. Indeed, the states cite no precedent for a lawsuit like this. Bottom line, he said, the states are out of luck, at least on this question. Cornell law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr is author of a leading text on immigration law.

STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: I think the message is that states cannot willy-nilly bring a lawsuit simply because they disagree with what the federal government is doing.

TOTENBERG: Today's decision was the second time in a week that the court has tossed out a state claim for lack of standing. Last week, the court similarly threw out a challenge brought by Texas to the Indian Child Welfare Act, known as ICWA. In that case, too, the court said the state had no legal standing to sue. As Case Western Reserve professor Jonathan Adler observes, both these decisions seem to contradict a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that accorded, quote, "special solicitude for states on questions of standing when they challenge federal laws and practices in court."

JONATHAN ADLER: Today's decision, combined with the ICWA decision, sends the opposite message - that states aren't getting special treatment. They're not having an easier time pushing the courthouse door open, and I think lower courts will get that message too.

TOTENBERG: In a separate case involving immigration today, the court ruled against a man who made nearly $2 million with a scam in which he persuaded hundreds of people that they could become U.S. citizens through adult adoptions. Helaman Hansen's fake adult adoption program duped people into forking over their life savings in the vain belief that he'd enrolled them in a legal path to citizenship. Hansen was ultimately convicted of violating a federal law that makes it a crime to encourage or induce illegal immigration.

But the conviction and the law were struck down by a federal appeals court on grounds that the words induce and encourage are so broad that they could easily encompass legal speech protected by the First Amendment. But by a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court reinstated Hansen's conviction. Writing for the court majority, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said that, properly interpreted, the law forbids only the knowing violation of certain specific illegal acts. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.