Trump Travel Ban Faces Court Hearings By Challengers Today
Updated at 6:10 p.m. ET
At least three judges will hear last-minute challenges today to President Trump's revised executive order on immigration, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. ET on Thursday. The order temporarily halts the U.S. refugee program and travel from six mostly Muslim countries.
Some state attorneys general and immigration advocates were able to get the first order suspended. Judges in Maryland, Washington state and Hawaii are hearing challenges today to the new one.
The White House says the executive order Trump signed on March 6 is urgently needed to protect national security. But critics counter that both executive orders are really intended to block immigration from Muslim countries, in violation of the Constitution.
Here's a look at what to expect in three closely watched cases.
Federal District Judge James Robart — who blocked much of the White House's first travel ban last month — is expected to hold a hearing at 5 p.m. ET in Seattle. The case he'll hear today was brought by four citizens or permanent residents in Washington who argue that access to visas for their family members would be disrupted by the revised travel ban.
Robart has already ruled against the Trump administration once before. His ruling was later upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Rather than defend its original travel ban, the Trump administration replaced it with a new one that the White House argues is "substantially different."
The revised executive order temporarily blocks entry by travelers from six mostly Muslim countries, not seven. (Iraq was dropped from the list.) And the new order makes clear that it doesn't apply to lawful permanent residents, also known as green-card holders, or to people holding valid visas issued before the ban takes effect.
But those changes aren't enough to satisfy Washington state and Minnesota, which brought the challenge to the original travel ban. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson — along with his counterparts from New York, California, Maryland, Massachusetts and Oregon — asked the court to extend its injunction to block the new order, as well.
"What we're looking at is what Donald Trump said when he was running for president," Ferguson tells NPR's Morning Edition. "He said he wanted to create a Muslim ban." Ferguson argues that's "strong evidence that the intent behind these executive orders was actually less about national security, and more about a Muslim ban."
That's a charge the White House denies. Lawyers for the Department of Justice say the president has broad authority when it comes to border security. And they say the 90-day travel ban is needed to shore up vetting procedures from six countries that either are state sponsors of terrorism or have harbored terrorists.
Two refugee rights groups are challenging the revised travel ban in Maryland with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center. They're asking the court to block the second travel ban order "in its entirety."
Department of Justice lawyer Jeffrey Wall argued that the executive order "doesn't say anything about religion" and "doesn't send a religious message."
But the plaintiffs say this is a Muslim ban, like Trump proposed on the campaign trail. Lee Gelernt of the ACLU tells NPR that the context of the order, including Trump's campaign statements, should be considered and makes the order's intent clear.
"The purpose of this was to ban Muslims and we are hopeful that the judge, like other courts, will ... not turn a blind eye to what's happening — that the administration just made certain tweaks to get around a court order but still has the same policy purpose," Gelernt said.
U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang said he would rule soon, but not necessarily today.
Like the original travel ban, the revised version suspends the U.S. refugee program for 120 days. It also cuts the number of refugees the U.S. will accept this year by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000.
There are some changes, as well. Refugees from Syria are no longer banned indefinitely. And the revised order drops language that was intended to favor religious minorities, which Trump signaled would apply to persecuted Christians from the Middle East.
When the White House announced the second travel ban last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered some new support for the temporary freeze on refugee resettlement. "More than 300 people who came here as refugees are under FBI investigation for potential terrorism-related activities," Sessions said. But the Department of Justice declined to provide further information about the nature of those cases or what countries those refugees came from.
Refugee resettlement organizations argue that there's no legitimate reason for the ban. They say it would cause lasting harm to them and the people they assist.
"It's not just about picking up refugees at the airport," said Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS, one of the nine major resettlement agencies and a plaintiff in the Maryland case. On a conference call with reporters, Hetfield said that agencies like his offer a range of services, from help locating and furnishing apartments, finding a job and getting kids signed up for school. If the refugee program is suspended, Hetfield says, it will be "very difficult to get things going again."
The third hearing is scheduled at 3:30 p.m. ET in Hawaii, in a case brought by the state of Hawaii and a local imam. As in the other cases, lawyers argue that the travel ban discriminates against Muslims. They say the executive order would harm the economy of Hawaii by disrupting tourism and educational institutions that depend on tuition from foreign students.
The Department of Justice rejects that claim as speculation. A DOJ lawyer argued that the travel ban is based on nationality, not religion, and therefore is perfectly legal.
The judge in Hawaii has said that he will issue a ruling before midnight ET.
There are also a handful of cases challenging the revised travel ban in other parts of the country, including Wisconsin, Virginia, and California.