HOUSTON (AP) — A federal judge on Friday questioned whether living in poverty would be enough to qualify someone for a key immigration policy from President Joe Biden that allows a limited number of people from four countries in the Americas to enter the U.S. on humanitarian grounds.
The program allows up to 30,000 people into the U.S. each month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela combined.
The program is being challenged in a lawsuit filed by Texas and 20 other Republican-leaning states. They’re accusing it of being a “shadow immigration system” that’s letting in nearly everyone who applies.
U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton said that a “massive chunk of the world” lives in poverty, adding he’s visited Haiti and seen terrible living conditions there firsthand.
“Does the fact they are living in poverty qualify as an urgent humanitarian need?” Tipton asked as closing arguments were being presented in the trial in Victoria, Texas.
“I think probably not,” said Elissa Fudim, a lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department, which is defending the federal government in the lawsuit.
Esther Sung, an attorney with the Justice Action Center, one of several immigrant rights group’s that are defending the parole program in the lawsuit, said that Congress “has frowned on letting a migrant in for purely economic reasons.”
Attorneys for Texas and the other states say the large numbers of migrants being paroled in the U.S. show officials are granting parole en masse and not on a case-by-case basis as required by law.
But lawyers with the U.S. Justice Department and the immigrant rights groups argued migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela are not simply fleeing economic hardship but also oppressive regimes, escalating violence and worsening political conditions that have endangered their lives.
The program’s supporters argue it isn’t giving blanket approval to all who apply and that each case is individually reviewed. They dispute the claim everyone is accepted, saying people who had made it to the final approval step after arriving in the U.S. have been rejected. No number was given on how many such rejections have occurred. They said the program has also helped reduce the strain on resources and border agents along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tipton pushed back on claims from Texas’ lawyers too. They have argued the state is spending millions of dollars on health care and public education costs because of an influx of paroled migrants. Texas would have to prove it has suffered an economic loss to have standing in the case.
Tipton repeatedly asked Texas’ lawyers how the state could be claiming financial losses if data shows that the parole program has actually reduced the number of migrants coming into the U.S.
“In the last six moths you’ve actually spent less on people from those countries,” Tipton told Texas’ lawyers.
After closing arguments wrapped up Friday, Tipton did not immediately issue a ruling on the legality of the parole program. A decision could come months down the road.
But Tipton said he was uncomfortable with issuing any temporary order in the case that would halt the parole program nationwide, as there are U.S. states that say the initiative has benefited them.
The trial began Thursday and only one witness testified — an American who is sponsoring a migrant from Nicaragua who is now living in the U.S. because of the program. Most of the trial has been taken up by closing arguments and questions to the lawyers from Tipton.
As of the end of July, more than 72,000 Haitians, 63,000 Venezuelans, 41,000 Cubans and 34,000 Nicaraguans had been vetted and authorized to come to the U.S. through the program.
The lawsuit has not objected to the use of humanitarian parole for tens of thousands of Ukrainians who came after Russia’s invasion.
The parole program was started for Venezuelans in fall 2022 and then expanded in January. People taking part must apply online, arrive at an airport and have a sponsor. If approved, they can stay for two years and get a work permit.
Other programs the administration has implemented to reduce illegal immigration have also faced legal challenges.
Tipton, who was appointed by then-President Donald Trump, has previously ruled against the Biden administration on who to prioritize for deportation.
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