A federal judge struck down on Tuesday a stringent new asylum policy that officials have called crucial to managing the southern border, dealing a blow to the Biden administration’s strategy after illegal crossings by migrants declined sharply in the last few months.
The rule, which has been in effect since May 12, disqualifies most people from applying for asylum if they have crossed into the United States without either securing an appointment at an official port of entry or proving that they sought legal protection in another country along the way.
Immigrant advocacy groups who sued the administration said that the policy violated U.S. law and heightened migrants’ vulnerability to extortion and violence during protracted waits in Mexican border towns. They also argued that it mimicked a Trump administration rule to restrict asylum that was blocked in 2019 by the same judge, Jon S. Tigar of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
Judge Tigar stayed his order for 14 days, agreeing to a request by the Biden administration to give it time to appeal
In his ruling, Judge Tigar, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, wrote that the policy was “both substantively and procedurally invalid.”
The Biden administration introduced the asylum rule when it ended a public health measure known as Title 42, under which illegal crossers were swiftly expelled. Since then, the number of migrants apprehended at the southern border has plummeted: In June, fewer than 100,000 people were arrested, the lowest figure since February 2021.
A migrant surge could open up President Biden to attacks from Republicans, as campaigning gets underway for the presidential election next year. This policy, in particular, did not diverge greatly from the one introduced by President Donald J. Trump, according to legal experts.
The strategy of returning to the same judge who found the Trump administration’s rule unlawful paid off for immigrant advocates, said Kathleen Bush-Joseph, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.
Even so, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit could put Judge Tigar’s ruling against the policy on hold while the government appeals, and the case could ultimately reach the Supreme Court.
Civil rights groups lauded the judge’s decision, but said that migrants remained vulnerable as long as the rule remained in place.
“The ruling is a victory, but each day the Biden administration prolongs the fight over its illegal ban, many people fleeing persecution and seeking safe harbor for their families are instead left in grave danger,” Katrina Eiland, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the case for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
The administration argued in court that the rule had prevented chaos at the border and that unlawful crossings would spike if it were rescinded, straining government resources and creating dangerous conditions like overcrowding in migrant processing facilities. The administration also said that other programs that it has introduced offered alternatives for asylum seekers excluded by the rule.
Those programs, among other factors, have contributed to the recent decrease in unauthorized crossings, and they make it difficult to predict how the judge’s ruling will affect migration levels.
Mexican authorities have been intercepting some migrants who cross into Mexico from the south, and have been returning them to Guatemala or otherwise preventing them from journeying north to the U.S. border.
The Biden administration’s new programs have enabled several hundred thousand people to legally enter the United States this year for stays of at least two years, provided they have a financial sponsor or an active visa application to reunite with relatives.