In severe legal blow, judge blocks Trump travel ban

VIDEO: REUTERS
Demonstrators rally inside San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 4 on the second day of anti-Donald Trump immigration ban protests on Jan 29, 2017.
Demonstrators rally inside San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 4 on the second day of anti-Donald Trump immigration ban protests on Jan 29, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS
Behnam Partopour, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute student from Iran, is greeted by his sister Bahar (left) at Logan Airport after he cleared US customs and immigration on an F1 student visa in Boston on February 3, 2017. Partopour was originally tu
Behnam Partopour, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute student from Iran, is greeted by his sister Bahar (left) at Logan Airport after he cleared US customs and immigration on an F1 student visa in Boston on February 3, 2017. Partopour was originally turned away from a flight to the US following the travel ban.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEATTLE/BOSTON (REUTERS, AFP) – A Seattle federal judge on Friday (Feb 3) put a nationwide block on US President Donald Trump’s week-old executive order that had temporarily barred refugees and nationals from seven countries from entering the United States.

The judge’s temporary restraining order represents a major setback for Trump’s action, though the White House said late Friday that it believed the ban to be “lawful and appropriate”and that the US Department of Justice would file an emergency appeal.

Still, just hours after the ruling, US Customs and Border Protection told airlines they could board travellers who had been affected by the ban.

Trump’s Jan 27 order caused chaos at airports across the United States last week as some citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen were denied entry. Virtually all refugees were also barred, upending the lives of thousands of people who had spent years seeking asylum in the US.

The State Department said Friday that almost 60,000 visas were suspended in the wake of Trump’s order; it was not clear Friday night whether that suspension was automatically revoked or what travellers with such visas might confront at US airports.

While Friday’s ruling was not the first to challenge the travel ban, it was the most sweeping as it effectively vacated the main tenets of the order. 

Judge James Robart, a George W. Bush appointee, explicitly made his ruling apply across the country, while other judges facing similar cases have so far issued orders concerning only specific individuals.

 

The challenge in Seattle was brought by the state of Washington and later joined by the state of Minnesota. The judge ruled that the states have legal standing to sue, which could help Democratic attorneys general take on Trump in court on issues beyond immigration.

Washington’s case was based on claims that the state had suffered harm from the travel ban, for example students and faculty at state-funded universities being stranded overseas. 

Amazon.com and Expedia, both based in Washington state, had supported the lawsuit, asserting that the travel restrictions harmed their businesses.

Tech companies, which rely on talent from around the world, have been increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies.

Judge Robart probed a Justice Department lawyer on what he called the “litany of harms” suffered by Washington state’s universities, and also questioned the administration’s use of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States as a justification for the ban.

Robart said no attacks had been carried out on US soil by individuals from the seven countries affected by the travel ban since that assault. For Trump’s order to be constitutional, Robart said, it had to be “based in fact, as opposed to fiction.” 

Gulf carrier Qatar Airways will allow passengers barred by the executive order last week to board flights to the US, after Robart’s order, a spokeswoman told Reuters.

But for some who had changed their travel plans following the ban, the order was not enough reassurance.

In Dubai, Tariq Laham, 32, and his fiancee Natalia had scrapped plans to travel to the US after their July wedding in Poland, where Natalia is from.

Laham said the couple would not reverse their decision. “It is just too risky,” said Laham, a Syrian who works as a director of commercial operations at a multinational technology company. “Everyday you wake up and there is a new decision.” 

WHITE HOUSE TO APPEAL 

The White House said it would file an appeal as soon as possible. It initially denounced the decision as “outrageous” but later removed the word from its statement.

“At the earliest possible time, the Department of Justice intends to file (for) an emergency stay of this order and defend the executive order of the president, which we believe is lawful and appropriate,” a statement said. 

“The president’s order is intended to protect the homeland and he has the constitutional authority and responsibility to protect the American people.” 

Washington Governor Jay Inslee celebrated the decision as a victory for the state, adding: “No person – not even the president – is above the law.” 

The judge’s decision was welcomed by groups protesting the ban. “This order demonstrates that federal judges throughout the country are seeing the serious constitutional problems with this order,” said Nicholas Espiritu, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.

Eric Ferrero, Amnesty International USA spokesman, lauded the short-term relief provided by the order but added: “Congress must step in and block this unlawful ban for good.” 

But the fluid legal situation was illustrated by the fact that Robart’s ruling came just hours after a federal judge in Boston declined to extend a temporary restraining order allowing some immigrants into the United States from countries affected by Trump’s three-month ban.

A Reuters poll earlier this week indicated that the immigration ban has popular support, with 49 per cent of Americans agreeing with the order and 41 per cent disagreeing. Some 53 per cent of Democrats said they “strongly disagree” with Trump’s action while 51 per cent of Republicans said they“strongly agree.”

At least one company, the ride-hailing giant Uber, was moving quickly Friday night to take advantage of the ruling.

CEO Travis Kalanick, who quit Trump’s business advisory council this week in the face of a fierce backlash from Uber customers and the company’s many immigrant drivers, said on Twitter: “We have a team of in-house attorneys who’ve been working night & day to get US resident drivers & stranded families back into country.

“I just chatted with our head of litigation Angela, who’s buying a whole bunch of airline tickets ASAP!! #homecoming #fingerscrossed, ” he wrote.  

FOUR STATES IN COURT 

The decision in Washington state came at the end of a day of furious legal activity around the country over the immigration ban.

The Trump administration has justified its actions on national security grounds, but opponents have labelled it an unconstitutional order targeting people based on religious beliefs.

In Boston, US District Judge Nathan Gorton expressed skepticism during oral arguments about a civil rights group’s claim that Trump’s order represented religious discrimination, before declining to extend the restraining order.

US District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Virginia, ordered the federal government to give the state a list by Thursday of “all persons who have been denied entry to or removed from the United States.” 

The state of Hawaii on Friday also filed a lawsuit alleging that the order is unconstitutional and asking the court to block the order across the country.