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Immigration advocates are cheering the Supreme Court's decision on 'Remain in Mexico'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We begin this hour with the Supreme Court, which issued its final two decisions of the term today, including a major ruling on immigration. The high court handed a victory to President Biden in a closely watched case about the policy known as Remain in Mexico. In a 5-to-4 decision, the majority cleared the way for the Biden administration to end the Trump-era policy. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and is here in the studio. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: To start off, remind us how this policy ended up before the Supreme Court.

ROSE: Sure. This is the Trump-era policy that forced some migrants to stay in Mexico while their cases played out in U.S. immigration courts. President Biden called the policy inhumane because it forced thousands of migrants to wait in dangerous border towns and camps. And his administration tried to end it, but Texas and Missouri sued, and a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to reinstate the policy. Now the Supreme Court has sided with the Biden administration, saying it can end Remain in Mexico, in a 5-to-4 ruling with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the opinion joined by three liberal justices and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

SHAPIRO: That's an unusual combination that we have not often seen. How did the chief justice explain the decision?

ROSE: The majority reached this decision really in two ways. One, it said the federal district court did not have the authority to do what it did in the first place when it ordered the administration to restart the policy. And two, the majority said the lower courts were also wrong on the merits. The lower courts had agreed with the states of Texas and Missouri when they argued that the Biden administration had basically two choices under immigration law - that it has to either detain migrants who cross the border illegally or, if there's not enough capacity to detain them all - and there is not - then it has to return at least some of them to Mexico.

The Biden administration pushed back on that. They said no administration has ever interpreted the law that way - not even the Trump administration. And the Supreme Court ruled today that the executive branch does have wide discretion over immigration policy, especially when it's connected to foreign policy as it is here with Mexico.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about the reaction today from the people who are most invested in this decision.

ROSE: Well, immigrant rights advocates are definitely breathing a sigh of relief today. Here's Cecillia Wang with the ACLU.

CECILLIA WANG: The court got it right and really reaffirmed fundamental laws that prevent a state like Texas from trying to derail the executive branch's decisions on immigration policy.

ROSE: And immigration hard-liners are disappointed. Texas Governor Greg Abbott put out a statement saying the Supreme Court's ruling would, quote, "only embolden the Biden administration's open border policies." Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote on Twitter that Remain in Mexico is, quote, "one of our last and best protections," unquote, to discourage migrants from crossing the border. And the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, put out a statement saying, quote, "ending this policy only exacerbates the problem, plain and simple." Migrant apprehensions at the southern border are at an all-time high, and these Republicans argue it is exactly the wrong time for the Biden administration to be rolling back these Trump-era immigration policies.

SHAPIRO: What's the practical effect at the border going to be? Will things change right away?

ROSE: The immediate effect may be fairly limited, just because this restarted version of the Remain in Mexico program is fairly small - only a few thousand migrants are in it compared to about 70,000 who are in the Trump version - and also because Title 42 is still in place at the border. This is the Trump-era public health rule that has allowed immigration authorities to quickly expel hundreds of thousands of migrants without giving them a chance to ask for asylum. The Biden administration tried to end that policy as well, but once again, it was blocked in court.

SHAPIRO: OK. So there's a pattern here. The Biden administration is facing a long list of lawsuits that have blocked it from carrying out big parts of its immigration agenda. What is the effect of this Supreme Court ruling going to be on those cases?

ROSE: It's a great question. Just a few weeks ago, a different federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration's immigration enforcement priorities, which had sharply limited whom ICE agents and officers can arrest and deport in the interior of the country. And, you know, it seems likely that the Biden administration's lawyers will point to today's ruling and ask an appeals court to overturn that decision. But is that strategy going to work? I put that question to Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell Law School, and he's skeptical that this Supreme Court ruling will have that kind of wider impact.

STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: Yes, it is an important victory today for the Biden administration on immigration, but it's not going to stop states like Texas and Louisiana and Arizona from challenging the Biden administration on every immigration policy that they can.

ROSE: It's still a bit unclear exactly when Remain in Mexico will end as a practical matter. We reached out to the Biden administration and so far have not heard back on that.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.