Judge: Anti-immigration group's environment suit can proceed

A large wall outdoors
View of a section of the border fence between Mexico and the US under construction, in Mexicali, Baja California state, Mexico on March 10, 2018.
GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images 2018

An anti-immigration group has scored a legal victory in its federal lawsuit arguing the Biden administration violated environmental law when it halted construction of the U.S. southern border wall and sought to undo other immigration policies by former President Donald Trump.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled Friday that a lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform against three federal agencies can proceed, at least in part.

Judge Trevor McFadden said the federal district court has jurisdiction to hear the case, though he dismissed two of the Boston-area group’s 11 claims.

The coalition argues the Biden administration violated federal environmental law when it halted construction of the wall, ended Trump's controversial “Remain in Mexico” asylum process, expanded refugee programs for Afghans, Central Americans and other populations, and eased certain policies for border patrol and immigration enforcement agents, among other measures.

The Massachusetts coalition, which advocates for reducing immigration for environmental reasons, says the U.S. Department of State, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security should have conducted environmental impact analysis before implementing the immigration changes, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“If NEPA should apply to any government policy, it should be to federal policies that induce population growth,” the organization states in its complaint. “When the federal government makes the choice to create population growth through immigration, it makes a decision yielding significant and foreseeable environmental consequences."

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Six people from Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Arizona who say they’ve dealt with the environmental consequences of federal immigration policy are also named as plaintiffs.

Steven Chance Smith, an Arizona cattle rancher, says migrants crossing the southern border leave trash, set fires and negatively impact his land in other ways. He says his family also worries about the presence of drug cartel members and human smugglers.

“Life on the border during mass migrations is very stressful,” the lawsuit states. “The land is being overrun and constantly degraded."

Judge McFadden dismissed counts alleging the Homeland Security Department's instruction manual violates environmental law and that the Biden administration should have prepared a “programmatic” environmental analysis of its immigration-related actions.

Spokespeople for the three agencies named in the suit didn’t respond Wednesday to emails seeking comment.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a D.C.-based group that advocates for less immigration and filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Massachusetts coalition, cheered the decision.

“The policies implemented unilaterally by the Biden Administration, which have encouraged more than a million foreign nationals to enter and settle in the United States, are the quintessential type of action to which NEPA — a law passed out of a concern for population growth — should apply,” Julie Axelrod, the center’s director of litigation, said in a statement Tuesday.

Biden halted construction on border walls upon taking office in 2021, but has allowed work in very limited circumstances.

Earlier this month, his administration officially ended the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy that required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court after the Supreme Court ruled in June it could do so.