Judge orders US to let in immigrant visa holders, in latest blow to Trump order

Demonstrators at O'Hare Airport in Chicago protesting US President Donald Trump's executive order, which imposes a freeze on admitting refugees into the country and a ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Demonstrators at O'Hare Airport in Chicago protesting US President Donald Trump's executive order, which imposes a freeze on admitting refugees into the country and a ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) - A federal judge has dealt another blow to President Donald Trump's executive order barring some foreigners from coming into the United States, in a ruling that added to the confusion over the legality of the immigration measure.

Using more sweeping language than in previous court rulings, Judge Andre Birotte Jr of US District Court issued a temporary restraining order on Tuesday (Jan 31) evening requiring the government to allow in people with valid immigrant visas from the seven majority-Muslim countries Mr Trump sought to block.

The judge's order affects only people who are seeking to live in the US permanently and are taking the first steps to becoming legal residents. This does not include tourists or students trying to enter the country.

The order came in response to a complaint filed on behalf of 28 people from Yemen - US citizens and their family members who had remained in Yemen but later received immigrant visas.

The visa holders have been stuck in an airport in Djibouti since Mr Trump issued his executive order on Friday, according to the complaint.

Like rulings in New York and Boston, Judge Birotte's order says that the plaintiffs would likely succeed in court on the merits and that they would also "likely suffer irreparable harm" without an injunction. Yemen is embroiled in a civil war with civilians in danger.

But unlike some other cases, Judge Birotte's ruling seemed to apply throughout the country, not just to Los Angeles International Airport. And while other orders had blocked the deportation of travellers, he explicitly wrote that the government could not detain them or block their entry into the country.

 

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The ruling could affect hundreds of people who are in their home countries or stuck in airports in other countries, hoping that they would somehow be permitted to travel to the US.

"Even after previous rulings, people have continued to have their visas and green cards cancelled or coerced into signing them away," said Mr Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

"This should end that."

While the ACLU has filed several complaints against the executive order, they are not involved in this case.

"If you take all these orders together, they are just an overwhelming repudiation of the executive order," Mr Arulanantham said. "Every court that has ruled on this has seen it as unconstitutional, so that is a strong sign that this is blatantly illegal. We very rarely get such uniform and swift action by the judicial branch for anything."

In the days since the executive order was issued, border officials and airline employees throughout the world have stopped people from the affected countries - Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - from boarding planes headed for the US.

The Yemeni plaintiffs also said in court filings that US officials had confiscated their passports, repeating similar complaints from other travellers in the past several days.

Mr Arulanantham said that while he believed the previous court orders had implied that US officials should not prevent valid visa holders from getting on planes, Judge Birotte's order should force the government to stop that practice.

But even after a New York judge ruled that people with valid visas should not be sent back to their home countries, there were reports that it was continuing to happen. In many cases, travellers reported being held for 24 hours or more, far longer than a typical inspection to enter the country.

It remains unclear how the Trump administration will respond to the numerous judicial orders issued in the last several days.