Immigration Tijuana
Migrants from Venezuela who got expelled from the U.S. and sent back to Mexico under Title 42, stand outside the National Institute of Migration building in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico Oct. 13. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

A judge on Tuesday ruled that a pandemic-era order used to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants to Mexico was unlawful, a ruling that could have major implications for U.S. border management.

In a 49-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan said the policy was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated federal regulatory law.

The ruling could complicate President Joe Biden’s border strategy. Last month, the administration announced it would begin sending Venezuelans caught at the U.S.-Mexico border back to Mexico under the expulsion order as a way to deter crossings, which have reached record highs.

The order, known as Title 42, was put in place under then-President Donald Trump’s administration in March 2020 early in the COVID pandemic. Biden continued to use the measure after taking office, expelling migrants about 2 million times, although many were repeat crossers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the order but later, under Biden, said it was no longer needed due to health reasons. However, a Louisiana-based federal judge ruled in May that the Biden administration could not end it.

Sullivan, a Washington, D.C., based appointee of former President Bill Clinton, wrote that the policy violated a federal law governing regulations known as the Administrative Procedure Act.

“It is unreasonable for the CDC to assume that it can ignore the consequences of any actions it chooses to take in the pursuit of fulfilling its goals, particularly when those actions included the extraordinary decision to suspend [asylum laws],” he wrote.

Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the families, said the ruling would “literally save lives” since tens of thousands of asylum seekers had been sent back to Mexico under the policy without a hearing.

The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment.