WASHINGTON (AP) — Valerie Laveus remembers when she first heard about an immigration program designed to allow people to come to the U.S. from four countries, including her native Haiti.
“I said, ‘Whoa! This seems like it would work well for bringing my nephew and my brother into the country,’” said the Florida teacher, who received a WhatsApp message in January and verified with an immigration lawyer that the program was real.
After years of trying to get a green card, her brother arrived with her nephew in early August, ready to start a new life. They are two of the roughly 181,000 people who have entered the U.S. under the humanitarian parole program since President Joe Biden launched the initiative.
But 21 Republican-leaning states threaten to end the program through a lawsuit to determine its legality, which is set to be heard in a Texas court beginning Thursday, with a decision coming later.
If the Biden administration loses, it would undercut a broader policy seeking to encourage migrants to use the administration’s preferred pathways into the U.S. or face stiff consequences. The administration has said it had to act in the absence of congressional action to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.
But much of the administration’s strategy is just one lawsuit away from collapse.
In the Texas trial, Republican states are expected to argue the Biden administration is basically usurping the power of Congress by allowing up to 360,000 people annually into the U.S. from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela under the humanitarian parole program. They say the program is an overreach of a parole power meant to be used on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.
The administration argues it has the power to use humanitarian parole in this way and credits the initiative with drastically reducing illegal border crossings by immigrants from those four countries. Program applicants must pass background checks and have a financial sponsor in the U.S. who vouches for them. If approved, they must fly into a U.S. airport instead of crossing at the southern border. They can then stay in the U.S. for two years and get a work permit.
Immigrant rights groups successfully petitioned to join the legal proceedings on behalf of Laveus and six other people who are sponsoring migrants. Esther Sung, an attorney for Justice Action Center, said the groups want to show the real people who have volunteered to be sponsors and how ending the program would affect them.
Blas Nuñez-Neto, assistant secretary for border and immigration policy with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said in a recent conference call that the government is worried about the upcoming trial and will appeal if the administration loses.
The case is scheduled to be heard by Judge Drew Tipton in Victoria, Texas, a Donald Trump appointee who has ruled against the Biden administration on who to prioritize for deportation. The federal government pushed unsuccessfully to have the humanitarian parole case transferred from Tipton’s courtroom after suggesting the Republican states filed in Victoria because they were seeking a favorable judge.
The U.S. used its humanitarian parole powers to grant entry to tens of thousands of Ukrainians when Russia invaded, but the Republican states’ lawsuit does not challenge that decision.
Just about anyone can be a sponsor provided they fill out the paperwork. Many, like Laveus, are sponsoring relatives who have no other way to come to the U.S.
Laveus said her brother was approved for a green card a few years ago, but the immigration system’s quotas meant his arrival was estimated to be delayed another six years. In the meantime, she supported relatives from afar as they tried to survive in a country plagued by economic instability and largely controlled by gangs.
A former opposition political leader and human rights activist from Nicaragua, who was jailed in his homeland for his activities, was sponsored by his brother, a U.S. citizen living in El Paso, Texas. The man, who wanted his identity withheld to protect his family in Nicaragua, came to the U.S. in July and plans to work in construction.
“I wanted to take this opportunity to save my life,” he said in Spanish.
Members of churches, synagogues and mosques have joined to sponsor people they don’t know out of religious belief to help others.
Eric Sype is sponsoring a member of a family he stayed with when he lived and worked in Nicaragua as a college student in 2014. Sype is one of seven sponsors represented by immigrants rights groups in the legal challenge.
The person he is sponsoring plans to work in the U.S. for two years, then return to Nicaragua to be with his wife and two children. Sype said his friend will stay in Sype’s childhood home in Washington state, where a cousin has offered him a job at an orchard growing pears, cherries and apples.
Sype said he had no hesitation about sponsoring the man, whom he said is part of his “chosen family.” Sype has spent major holidays including Christmas with the family in Nicaragua and they talk or message weekly.
“I just can’t really imagine how this program is doing anything but benefiting folks, bringing people back together,” he said.
The Biden administration’s program appears to be one of the largest single uses of the humanitarian parole authority, but it is certainly not the only administration to use it.
The authority has been used repeatedly in large and small ways including providing entry to Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians in the late 1970s, Iraqi Kurds who helped the U.S. in the 1990s Gulf War and Cubans fleeing their country at various times, according to data from the Cato Institute.
The Biden administration started the program for Venezuelans in October 2022 and added Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans in January.
Still, some who are generally supportive of the program have concerns. Critics say the need to have a financial sponsor essentially favors more affluent, well-connected migrants, while also fearing the program could be used to exploit migrants.
Muriel Sáenz, who helps immigrants through Nicaraguans Around the World, a Texas-based group, said it can be difficult to find sponsors for migrants who don’t already have family ties in the U.S. She encourages U.S. citizens to sponsor people they don’t know, which can be a harder sell.
“It is too much responsibility,” Sáenz said. “Legally you are adopting people for two years.”
Salomon reported from Miami.