Under Texas ruling, a Trump-era approach to deportations returns


The decision leaves undocumented immigrants more vulnerable to deportation, especially those living in cities such as Houston that fully cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to immigration experts.

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“The impact on our community is huge,” said Zenobia Lai, immigration attorney and director at the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative. Roughly half a million undocumented immigrants live in the Houston area.

Lai said when immigration officers are operating without a set of priorities, it means if someone ends up in police custody for a minor offense, that person is more likely to end up in immigrant detention and in deportation proceedings.

“They (ICE) can just arrest anybody like before, for any reason,” Lai said.

Under President Donald Trump, ICE expanded the scope of who was a priority for enforcement, including people with no criminal record. Overall, immigration arrests increased nationally 42 percent during Trump’s first year in office, compared to Obama’s last year, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute.

When President Joe Biden took office, he created very specific priorities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which signaled to undocumented people in the U.S. that if they follow the law and are already established in the country, they are not a priority for deportation.

“This is a disappointment for the Biden administration,” said Migration Policy Institute expert Muzaffar Chishti, who believes that the creation of priorities for immigration enforcement was “the most significant achievement of this administration on immigration so far, because it affected potentially 11 million people all over the country.”

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He believes that now the U.S. Supreme Court is even more likely to weigh in on the case. While the Department of Homeland Security is appealing the June 24 5th Circuit decision, a federal judge in the 6th Circuit ruled Tuesday that Biden did have the authority to create enforcement priorities. This has created a split decision among circuit courts, making it more likely that the Supreme Court will be making the final decision on the case.

This particular legal battle is one of many the Biden administration has been facing as Texas and other conservative states have brought lawsuits aimed at blocking Biden’s immigration agenda.

While last week’s Supreme Court decision came down on the side of the Biden administration — ruling it had the authority to end the Remain in Mexico policy — other lawsuits are temporarily holding in place Trump-era immigration policies, including Title 42 asylum restrictions.

Chishti said this has been an “unprecedented” amount of immigration-related legal interference, though he acknowledged that the Democrats also frequently intervened with the Trump administration’s immigration policies, “though not to the same level of detail.”

In practice, Chishti said reversing Biden’s enforcement priorities is likely to give more authority to local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to detain or start deportation proceedings using their own personal discretion, instead of following an overarching guidance. Some officials may continue to prioritize immigrants who pose a security threat, while others may focus on all undocumented immigrants, regardless of their criminal record or time in the country.

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In Houston, immigrant advocate Cesar Espinosa of FIEL said reverting to immigration enforcement priorities similar to those of the Trump-era may also have a chilling effect here in Houston, increasing anxiety in households that already fear deportation.

“We know of couples now that won’t go out together with the children out of fear that they’re gonna get pulled over,” Espinosa said, explaining that parents will sometimes even get jobs on different shifts, so someone is always home in case immigration authorities arrest the parent who is out and about.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to a request for comment.

The Biden administration memo from September 2021 said that ICE would prioritize the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants who were a threat to national security, public safety and border security, and included a detailed list of factors to consider like the seriousness of a previous crime — such as if a firearm was used or not — and how long they’ve been in the country.

In their lawsuit, the states of Texas and Oklahoma argued that those enforcement priorities are leading dangerous criminals to be released into local communities. In the lawsuit they said that that some undocumented immigrants were in Texas Department of Criminal Justice custody for possession of large quantities of illegal drugs and ICE refused to take them into custody under Biden administration priorities.

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The back and forth of immigration enforcement policies adds additional difficulty to operations at ICE at a time with historic numbers of arrests at the border.

The agency is in its sixth year without a confirmed director. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez recently withdrew his name from consideration for the role after Biden nominated him 14 months ago.

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