U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson (George F. Lee / Associated Press)
A federal judge in Hawaii on Thursday ordered the Trump administration to vastly expand the number of people exempt from a controversial travel ban to include those who have grandparents and other non-immediate family in the U.S., as well as refugees without family ties to the country.
In his order, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson said the government’s actions in implementing the limits on travel for refugees and residents of six Muslim-majority countries represented “the antithesis of common sense.”
He said the government had failed to follow Supreme Court orders last month that established conditions for a partial revival of the ban, whose implementation had been blocked by the courts.
The District Court’s decision means that the travel ban, reinstated by the Supreme Court on June 29 with exemptions for a limited list of “close” family members, will stay in place. But there will be expanded exceptions for would-be travelers who have grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and brothers- and sisters-in-law in the U.S.
Watson also said that refugees who have “formal assurance” from U.S. resettlement agencies for relocation to the country — even if the refugees do not have relatives in the U.S. — cannot be prevented from entering.
The decision means that potentially thousands of refugees who had been vetted for U.S. admission but were blocked after the government cut off most refugee admissions on Wednesday — the day the country hit a cap of 50,000 refugee admissions for the fiscal year — may now be let in.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday night.
For two weeks, the Trump administration and the state of Hawaii have fought repeatedly in federal courts over whom the ban can block.
At issue is how to determine which travelers have “close” relatives living in the U.S. or are associated with the country in other ways that let them bypass the ban — standards set by the Supreme Court when it lifted the previous halt on enforcement of the ban.
President Trump’s executive order halts travel by nationals of Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Iran but allows exceptions for those with what the Supreme Court called “bona fide” connections with the United States. The government has said those connections include a parent, spouse, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, sibling, fiance or fiancee, and in-law parents.
But the administration said grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and brothers- and sisters-in-law are not close enough to qualify for admission during the duration of the order. Attorneys for the state of Hawaii successfully petitioned Watson to order the government to count all of those categories as “bona fide” U.S. connections.
In the case of refugees, state lawyers argued that a refugee resettlement organization’s interactions with a refugee constitute a bona fide relationship. The administration disagreed.
Hawaii’s win came after it was twice rejected in court attempts to weaken the ban.
On July 6, Watson denied a request from the state to "clarify" exceptions to the ban, saying that he did not have the authority to interpret Supreme Court orders. The next day, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a similar request from the state, saying it did not have jurisdiction over the matter.
But appellate judges told challengers that they could try a different legal maneuver in the district court. Judges said Hawaii attorneys could request Watson to issue an injunction against the ban’s implementation or modify an injunction he had issued that previously had halted the ban, before his order was partially lifted by the Supreme Court. Hawaii filed both requests last week.
The travel ban calls for a three-month pause on travel to the United States by nationals of the six Muslim-majority countries and a four-month halt on all refugee resettlement.
Watson was one of the judges who granted a restraining order blocking implementation. His order was issued in a case filed in March by the state of Hawaii.
Successful challenges in that case and another filed in a Maryland federal court were upheld in the 9th Circuit and 4th Circuit appellate courts before requests were made to the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the ban.
On June 26, the Supreme Court said the ban could be put back into place with exceptions, but left it up to the government to define most of them. The court indicated its move was a temporary measure until the court hears full arguments on Trump’s executive order in the fall.
Jaweed Kaleem is The Times’ national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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