As President Joe Biden on Tuesday took a series of actions to promote racial equity, a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked his administration's 100-day halt on deportations, outraging rights advocates who pushed Biden to pursue an immigration agenda markedly different from that of his predecessor.
"Texas cannot and will not dictate the federal immigration policy—especially when that policy wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on the criminalization of immigrants, dehumanized vulnerable migrants, and swelled already-overcrowded jails and prisons."
—Marisa Franco, Mijente
Shortly after Biden took office last week, acting Homeland Security Secretary David Pekoske issued a memo (pdf) calling for most deportations to be halted by no later than Friday so that the new administration could review the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) immigration enforcement policies and practices.
Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton swiftly sued over the deportation moratorium, requesting that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas intervene and claiming that such a freeze would "harm Texas and the nation as a whole."
District Judge Drew B. Tipton, who was appointed to the court by former President Donald Trump, on Tuesday issued a 14-day temporary restraining order that blocks the policy nationwide and will remain in effect until he has considered a motion for a preliminary injunction, according to the New York Times.
Tipton said that the Biden administration's halt of deportations would violate an immigration law that says people with final orders of removal must be deported within 90 days as well as a law requiring agencies to "provide a logical and rational reason for their policy changes," the newspaper reported.
The Associated Press noted that "while Tipton's order bars enforcement of a moratorium, it does not require deportations to resume at their previous pace. Immigration agencies typically have latitude in processing cases and scheduling removal flights."
BREAKING: Judge Tipton blocks the Biden administration's 100 day deportation moratorium.
Big initial loss for the Biden administration as it moves forward with its immigration policies. pic.twitter.com/lwXpJpMn7m
— Hamed Aleaziz (@Haleaziz) January 26, 2021
While Paxton commended Tipton's decision, immigrant rights advocacy organizations including Mijente and RAICES sharply condemned it.
"Judge Tipton's decision to block the nationwide deportation moratorium will be remembered as one of the last gasps of the Trump administration's racist, xenophobic legacy," declared Marisa Franco, national director for Mijente.
"Texas cannot and will not dictate the federal immigration policy," she said, "especially when that policy wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on the criminalization of immigrants, dehumanized vulnerable migrants, and swelled already-overcrowded jails and prisons."
"We are confident that the Biden administration will exercise its full power to defend the legality of the memorandum and undo the damage that President Trump has done to our immigrant community and our national character," Franco added.
Denise Bell, a researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, also released a statement on the decision.
"This pause on deportations is a necessary and critical step as the new administration seeks to undo the devastating legacy of xenophobic, racist, and anti-immigrant policies instated by the previous administration, and takes steps to grapple with a deadly pandemic whose impact has been exacerbated by deportations," she said. "The safety and lives of people are being politicized at a time when the country should be coming together to improve our shared future."
RAICES policy director Manoj Govindaiah said that his group—the largest immigration legal services nonprofit in Texas—is "ultimately confident" that the Biden administration will succeed in this suit but the judge's decision "tells us it's going to be an uphill battle to see the undoing of Trump's policies in the immigration system."
"Let's make this clear: The Trump threat is NOT gone. His supporters are still in power.
This is exactly what is happening with Texas Attorney General @KenPaxtonTX & it's going to continue to happen.
Trump's rhetoric lives on. So we need to continue to fight." - @ErikaAndiola
— RAICES (@RAICESTEXAS) January 26, 2021
Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration lawyer and a professor at Cornell Law School, had a similar takeaway from the development Tuesday.
"The court's order shows the uphill battle President Biden has in trying to reverse the prior administration's immigration restrictions," he told the Times. "A single judge can halt a federal agency's effort to review and reprioritize its immigration enforcement policies."
A White House spokesperson, meanwhile, said that "we're confident that as the case proceeds, it will be clear that this measure was wholly appropriate in ordering a temporary pause to allow the agency to carefully review its policies, procedures, and enforcement priorities—while allowing for a greater focus on threats to public safety and national security."
"The court's order shows the uphill battle President Biden has in trying to reverse the prior administration's immigration restrictions."
—Stephen Yale-Loehr, Cornell Law School
"President Biden remains committed to taking immediate action to reform our immigration system to ensure it's upholding American values while keeping our communities safe," the White House spokesperson added.
The decision out of Texas came as the Biden Justice Department rescinded the Trump-era memo that established its so-called "zero tolerance" policy for migrants who unlawfully crossed the U.S.-Mexico border—which resulted in thousands of families being torn apart by the U.S. government, including over 600 children who remain separated from their parents.
According to an exclusive report by the AP on Tuesday, "Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson issued the new memo to federal prosecutors across the nation, saying the department would return to its longstanding previous policy and instructing prosecutors to act on the merits of individual cases."
Advocacy groups applauded the move but also reiterated the importance of Biden delivering on his campaign promise to work to reunite separated families:
#BREAKING: This cruel policy was responsible for the separation of more than 5,500 children from their parents at the border.
— Human Rights First (@humanrights1st) January 26, 2021
"This action is a good start, but doesn't impact already separated families. Biden must reunite separated families in the U.S. and provide them citizenship, resources, and care," tweeted the ACLU, which is working to reunite families. "Congress must also repeal penalties for unauthorized entry that result in family separation."
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) also responded on Twitter, saying: "Families belong together. This is an important step toward a more humane immigration system. But we need to move quickly to reunite the families torn apart by this evil policy."
This post was updated with comment from Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Amnesty International USA.