A federal judge Wednesday ordered the Biden administration to end the expedited releases of migrants who enter the United States illegally from Mexico, potentially straining already stretched holding facilities.
The order won't take effect for a week to give the government time to appeal. The Homeland Security and Justice departments had no immediate comment.
In declaring a key administration tool illegal, U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell II offered a scathing review of President Joe Biden's border policies in a 109-page opinion, which followed a January trial in Pensacola, Florida.
The administration has "effectively turned the Southwest Border into a meaningless line in the sand and little more than a speed bump for aliens flooding into the country," he wrote.
Wetherell, an appointee of President Donald Trump, criticized a decision to stop building a border wall; end a policy to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court; and shift enforcement priorities. He also faulted the administration for ending family detention at the border, a decision that officials have begun to reconsider.
"Collectively, these actions were akin to posting a flashing 'Come In, We're Open' sign on the Southern border," Wetherell wrote.
Wetherell's language echoed Republican talking points heaping blame for all the border's ills on Biden. While numbers have soared in the last two years, similar challenges dogged his predecessors, Trump and Barack Obama.
"Today's ruling affirms what we have known all along: President Biden is responsible for the border crisis and his unlawful immigration policies make this country less safe," said Ashley Moody, Florida's Republican attorney general, who sued on behalf of the state in 2021. "A federal judge is now ordering Biden to follow the law, and his administration should immediately begin securing the border to protect the American people."
At issue is the administration's growing use of parole to quickly remove migrants from Border Patrol custody to pursue their immigration cases. They are typically told to report to immigration authorities in two months and tracked with a mobile device.
The Border Patrol paroled 572,575 migrants last year, including a record 130,563 in December. Parole plunged 96% to 5,225 migrants in January after the administration announced measures aimed at deterring Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans from crossing the border illegally and instead seek protection by applying online, finding a financial sponsor and entering the U.S. at an airport.
Parole is far faster than the time-consuming job of agents issuing notices to appear in immigration court. It has dramatically alleviated overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities, which hovered around 12,000 toward the end of last year but fell below 5,000 in January.
Immigration advocates warned that Wetherell's ruling could exacerbate conditions.
"Should it take effect, this decision will mean greater health and safety risks for detained migrants and greater pressure on our agents at the border," said Jennie Murray, president of the National Immigration Forum.