Federal ruling on travel ban appealed
HONOLULU — President Donald Trump’s administration late Friday appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court a federal court’s decision to reopen a window for refugees to enter the United States.
In Hawaii on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson expanded the list of U.S. family relationships that refugees and visitors from six Muslim-majority countries can use to get into
the country, including grandparents and grandchildren.
In its appeal, the U.S. Justice Department said Watson’s interpretation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on what family relationships qualify refugees and visitors from the six countries to enter the U.S. “empties the court’s decision of meaning, as it encompasses not just ‘close’ family members, but virtually all family members. Treating all of these relationships as ‘close familial relationship(s)’ reads the term ‘close’ out of the Court’s decision.”
Only the Supreme Court can decide these issues surrounding the travel ban, the Justice Department said. “Only this Court can definitively settle whether the government’s reasonable implementation is consistent with this Court’s stay,” it said.
“Once again, we are faced with a situation in which a single Federal District Court has undertaken by a nationwide injunction to micromanage decisions of the coequal executive branch related to our national security,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement ahead of the appeal. “The Supreme Court has had to correct this lower court once, and we will now reluctantly return directly to the Supreme Court to again vindicate the rule of law and the executive branch’s duty to protect the nation.”
There’s no timetable for the Supreme Court to act, but the administration will be seeking quick action that clarifies the court’s June opinion.
The justices now are scattered during their summer recess; any short-term action would come in written filings.
The Supreme Court ruled late last month that the government could begin enforcing the measure, but not against those with “a credible claim of a bona fide relationship” with a person or entity in the United States.
The court offered only limited guidance on what type of relationship would qualify. “Close familial” relationships would count, the court said, as would ties such as a job offer or school acceptance letter that were “formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course.”
The rules are not so much an outright ban as a tightening of tough visa policies affecting citizens from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iran and Yemen. People from those countries who already have visas will be allowed into the U.S.
Only narrow categories of people, including those with relatives named in the ruling, will be considered for new visas. Watson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, ordered the government not to enforce the ban on grandparents, grandchildren, brothersin-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins of people in the U.S.
“Common sense, for instance, dictates that close family members be defined to include grandparents,” Watson said in his ruling. “Indeed grandparents are the epitome of close family members.”
Watson also ruled that the government may not exclude refugees who have formal assurance and promise of placement services from a resettlement agency in the U.S.
“An assurance from a United States refugee resettlement agency, in fact, meets each of the Supreme Court’s touchstones,” he wrote. “It is formal, it is a documented contract, it is binding, it triggers responsibilities and obligations, including compensation, it is issued specific to an individual refugee only when that refugee has been approved for entry by the Department of Homeland Security.”
The government had argued that it drew its definition of who counted as a close family member from immigration law. The ruling is a blow to the administration, though it almost certainly won’t be the last word on the case. Both those suing over the ban and the government lawyers defending it indicated earlier they thought the question of who could properly be kept out after the Supreme Court unfroze the ban was a matter destined for appellate courts.
And while the Supreme Court partially unfroze Trump’s travel ban, it did so only temporarily, indicating it would truly take up the case in October. By that time, the bans might have expired. The barring of new visas to those from six countries is supposed to last 90 days, and the barring of refugees is supposed to last 120 days.
The Hawaii ruling could bring relief to more than 24,000 refugees who had already been vetted and approved by the United States, resettlement agencies said.
“Many of them had already sold all of their belongings to start their new lives in safety,” said Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “This decision gives back hope to so many who would otherwise be stranded indefinitely.”
About 60 percent of all refugees admitted to the United States last year had family ties. That figure drops to about 25 percent for those from Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among the most common sources of refugees in recent years.
Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive of HIAS, a refugee and resettlement agency, called Watson’s ruling “a sensible and humane interpretation of the plain words of the Supreme Court.”
“Now grandparents and grandchildren who are refugees can be reunited with close family in the U.S., and U.S. communities can welcome those refugees for whom they have been waiting,” he said.
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told reporters that Trump administration lawyers will closely review the ruling, but it appears broad enough to “cover every refugee.”
Bossert said he does not believe that was the interpretation the U.S. Supreme Court intended when it reinstated the travel ban against those without a “bona fide relationship” with a person or an entity in the U.S.
The justices didn’t define a bona fide relationship but said it could include a close relative, a job offer or admission to a college or university. A relationship created to avoid the ban would not be acceptable, they said.
The Trump administration defined it as those who had a parent, spouse, fiance, son, daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling already in the U.S.
The case returned to Watson when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that he had the authority to interpret the Supreme Court’s order and block any violation of it. He broadened the definition of what counts as a close relationship.
Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin, who filed the case for the broader definition, said the court made clear “that the U.S. government may not ignore the scope of the partial travel ban as it sees fit.”
“Family members have been separated and real people have suffered enough,” Chin said in a statement.
Information for this article was contributed by Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Andrew Dalton, Julie Watson and Alicia A. Caldwell of The Associated Press; by Matt Zapotosky of The Washington
Post; and by Miriam Jordan and Vivian Yee of The New York Times.