A federal judge questioned whether living in poverty would be enough to meet the requirements of a Joe Biden administration immigration policy that allows a limited number of people from four countries to enter the United States on humanitarian grounds.
The program allows up to 30,000 people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to travel to the United States each month.
Texas and 20 other Republican-leaning states have filed lawsuits against the program, which they describe as a “clandestine immigration system” that admits almost anyone who applies.
Federal Judge Drew Tipton said a “large part of the world” lives in poverty, adding that he had visited Haiti and seen firsthand the appalling living conditions there.
“Is the fact that they live in poverty considered a pressing humanitarian need?” Tipton asked as closing arguments were delivered at the trial in Victoria, Texas.
“I think probably not,” replied Elissa Fudim, a Justice Department attorney who is defending the federal government in the lawsuit.
Esther Sung, an attorney with the Justice Action Center, one of several immigrant rights groups supporting the program in the lawsuit, said Congress was “not favorable to admitting a migrant on purely economic grounds.”
Attorneys in Texas and other states say the large number of immigrants being paroled in the United States shows that officials are issuing parole en masse rather than on a case-by-case basis, as required by law.
However, Justice Department attorneys and immigrant advocacy groups have argued that people migrating from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are fleeing not only economic hardship but also repressive regimes, escalating violence, and political conditions that threaten their lives.
Proponents of the program argue that not every application is approved and that each case is reviewed individually. They disagree with the statement that everyone is accepted and point out that people who reached the final stage of the process after arriving in the United States were turned away. No figures were published on the number of rejections. In addition, they said the program has also helped ease the pressure on resources and border officials at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tipton also denied claims by Texas attorneys that the state is spending millions of dollars on health care and public education due to the influx of parolee immigrants. Texas would have to show that it suffered economic losses to have legal standing in the case.
Tipton repeatedly asked Texas attorneys how the state could claim financial losses when data showed the parole program had actually reduced the number of migrants arriving in the United States.
“In the last six months, you’ve spent less on the people of these countries,” Tipton told Texas attorneys.
After closing arguments, Tipton did not rule on the legality of the program. The verdict could come within a few months.
But Tipton said he was uncomfortable issuing an injunction suspending the parole program across the country as states say the initiative has benefited them.
The trial began Thursday, and only one witness has testified: an American who is assisting a Nicaraguan migrant living in the United States under the program. Most of the trial was devoted to closing arguments and Tipton’s questions to the attorneys.
By the end of July, more than 72,000 Haitians, 63,000 Venezuelans, 41,000 Cubans, and 34,000 Nicaraguans had been tested and allowed entry to the United States under the program.
The lawsuit has not opposed the use of humanitarian probation for tens of thousands of Ukrainians who arrived after the Russian invasion.
The humanitarian parole program became available to Venezuelans in the fall of 2022 and was then expanded in January. Participants must apply online, arrive at the airport, and have a sponsor. If their application is approved, they can stay for two years and get a work permit.
Other programs the US government has put in place to reduce illegal immigration have also faced legal challenges.
Tipton, who was appointed by then-President Donald Trump, previously ruled against the Biden administration on who should be given priority in deportation.