A federal judge in Seattle ordered a temporary halt on Donald Trump’s travel ban for refugees and people from seven predominantly Muslim nations, opening the path for states to sue the White House over his order.
Trump administration offers conflicting numbers of revoked visas after travel ban
District judge James Robart granted a temporary restraining order on Friday after hearing arguments from Washington state and Minnesota that the president’s order had unlawfully discriminated against Muslims and caused unreasonable harm.
“We are a nation of laws. Not even the president can violate the constitution,” Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson told reporters outside the courtroom. “No one is above the law, not even the president.”
“This decision shuts down the executive order immediately, shuts it down,” he added. “That relief is immediate, happens right now. That’s the bottom line.”
But it was not immediately clear to everyone how the restraining order would be complied with. According to Reuters, citing an airline official speaking anonymously, Customs and Border Protection has informed US airlines that they can once again board travelers who had been barred by an executive order last week.
In a conference call at around 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT), the U.S. agency told airlines to operate just as they had before the order, which temporarily had stopped refugees and nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Individuals from those states who have proper visas can now board U.S.-bound flights, and airlines are working to update their websites to reflect the change, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly
In a statement, the state department said it did not immediately know how to comply. “We are working closely with the Dept of Homeland Security and our legal teams to determine how this affects our operations.” A DHS spokeswoman said that the agency would not comment: “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation.”
In his order, Robart wrote that the states had shown “immediate and irreparable injury” caused by Trump’s order.
“The executive order adversely affects the states’ residents in areas of employments, education, business, family relations, and freedom to travel,” he wrote. He then issued nationwide restraining stops to several sections of Trump’s executive order: its 90-day ban on visa-holders from seven nations, its indefinite ban on Syrian refugee admissions, and its 120-day ban on the entire refugee program.
“The work of the court is not to create policy or judge the wisdom of any particular policy promoted by the other two branches,” Robart wrote. “The work of the judiciary, and this court, is limited to ensuring that the actions taken by the other two branches comport with our country’s laws, and more importantly, our constitution.”
The judge insisted that his ruling was “narrow” – about whether certain actions by the president were cause for a restraining order – but concluded that “the circumstances brought before [the court] today are such that it must intervene to fulfill its constitutional role in our tripart government.”
Trump’s order, which was signed a week ago, threw airports into chaos over whether to detain or deport travelers. Last Saturday, federal judges in Brooklyn, Boston and other cities ordered the government to temporarily halt deportations of valid visa holders. Several courts are expected to rule on whether the order is constitutional later this month.
Also on Friday, a federal judge in Boston declined to extend a temporary restraining order that allowed some immigrants into the US from countries affected by Trump’s three-month ban.
US district judge Nathaniel Gorton expressed skepticism during oral arguments about a civil rights group’s claim that Trump’s order represented religious discrimination.
Robart’s order represents a major challenge to the Trump administration, which is expected to appeal to a higher court. The judge declined a request by the justice department attorney to stay his decision. His ruling does not permanently overturn the president’s order, nor does it rule on its longer-term directives to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Last week, after judges ordered Customs and Border Protection officials to stop deporting travelers with valid visas, enforcement remained confused for days. The Department of Homeland Security said that its officials would comply with court orders, but attorneys said that “rogue” agents continued to detain and even coerce detained travelers into signing away green cards.
Ferguson alluded to that disorder, calling its attempt at law enforcement an example of “keystone cops”.
“I’m certain the president will not like this decision,” he said, “but it his job, it his obligation, his responsibility to honor it, and I’ll make sure he does.”
In court, Washington solicitor general Noah Purcell called the White House’s arguments “frightening”, arguing that they cloaked everything under a veil of national security concerns. The government had argued, he said: “If the president says, ‘I’m doing this for national security’, then the court cannot review that that’s a reasonable reason. Our view is that’s not the law.”
Ferguson conceded that Congress had given the president broad powers to make national security and immigration decisions, but maintained that the order was unconstitutional discrimination. Robart pressed the government hard, however, on the president’s preference for Christian refugees and why the seven nations had been singled out when no citizens of those countries had committed terrorist acts in the US since September 11 2001.
Robart, who was appointed by George W Bush and confirmed by the Senate 99-0, said it seemed like “a bit of a reach to say the president is anti-Islam” based on his comments during the 2016 campaign but also questioned the justice department’s argument that states do not have standing to sue. He noted, for instance, that University of Washington students and faculty had been blocked from the school. “Is that not a direct financial harm?” the judge asked.
The Washington-based businesses of Amazon, Expedia and Microsoft joined the state’s efforts to stop the order.
Elsewhere in the US, a district judge in Virginia ordered the White House to provide a list of names of “all persons who have been denied entry to or removed from the United States” – a total that tops at least 60,000 people, according to the state department.
Also on Friday, the Department of Homeland Security said that there were no plans to extend the order beyond the seven countries listed: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. The agency also said that it would work to clear green-card holders and people who have worked with the US military.