U.S. Judge Reacts Skeptically to Bid to Block Travel Ban

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  • Maryland court hears first argument over new executive order
  • Honolulu judge listening to lawyers on whether to halt decree

Here's What's Different in Trump's New Travel Ban

A federal judge reacted skeptically to refugee rights groups’ request for a ruling that would block the revised Trump administration immigration order, in the first of several court hearings Wednesday seeking to thwart the president’s decree. 

U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang in Maryland heard almost two hours of argument but didn’t issue a ruling. At one point, Chuang asked whether he had a legal basis to overturn the president’s claim that the order protected the public. He said he may issue a decision later in the day.

A second court hearing addressing the travel ban is under way in Honolulu, where lawyers for Hawaii are arguing that the Trump administration can’t discriminate regarding visas based on nationality and religion.

If a policy-maker makes claims targeting a particular faith and then invokes a policy embodying that, it threatens the country’s atmosphere of religious freedom,’ said Colleen Roh Sinzdak, a lawyer for the state. The reference to “honor killings” in the revised executive order indicates the religious intent behind the order, she said.

U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson said he wasn’t convinced the order itself has religious connotations.

A court hearing is scheduled later Wednesday in Seattle, where a judges will also weigh requests to block the ban, which is set to take effect at midnight.

The Maryland and Hawaii hearings are the latest chapters in a bitter, high-stakes battle between Trump and his supporters and an array of critics, including Democratic state attorneys general, advocacy groups and technology companies, over the power of the president to dictate immigration policy. Trump’s initial executive order on immigration, released Jan. 27, touched off worldwide criticism and nationwide protests and was eventually halted by federal courts.

A revised ban, issued March 6, was narrower in focus and sought to avoid some of the legal pitfalls that doomed the first one, like providing an exemption for travelers with a valid visa or legal permanent residents, or so-called green card holders.

Candidate Statements

In Maryland, the refugee rights groups argued that the revised travel ban continues to discriminate against Muslims, particularly refugees. The president’s decree reduces the number that will be allowed into the U.S. during fiscal 2017 from 110,000 to 50,000. Most of those people are Muslim, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Omar Jadwat, told the court.

Jadwat argued that Trump’s statements as a candidate, as well as those of his surrogates, were relevant to determining the true intent behind the order. Trump called for a Muslim ban during the campaign.

"Where would the alleged taint of the president’s statements end?" Chuang asked.

Jadwat replied that it depended on the time and the circumstances under which such an executive order was issued. In this instance, he argued Trump’s statements were still relevant, since the president acted on statements he made as a candidate. "What’s absolutely clear is we’re on the other side of that spectrum right now," Jadwat said.

The judge also questioned both sides about whether those suing -- the refugee groups and six individuals -- had the requisite legal injury to bring their claims.

‘New Order’

Acting U.S. Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall told the judge that aggrieved parties can’t expect a court to intervene every time they have a claim under the Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees religious freedom.

“They need immediate irreparable injury,” he said. Wall also argued that the revised executive order provides justifications for its various provisions, which makes it different from the initial order.

“Its not the old order that’s before you. It’s the new order,” Wall said. “They’re trying to fight the last battle.” The administration argues that the president has broad authority to decide who is admitted to the country and that the order is intended to protect the nation from terrorists.

The judge also queried both sides on the scope of a ruling to temporarily halt the order, should he decide to issue one. The groups’ lawyers told him that the court’s decision should be nationwide in scope, while lawyers for the U.S. countered it should be tied to just those people before the court.

Chuang is a 2013 nominee of President Barack Obama. Prior to his appointment, he served as deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Becca Heller, the co-founder of International Refugee Assistance Project, one of the plaintiffs, told reporters that refugees’ lives were at stake. Since many of them come from countries riven by war, she said those refugees may not survive for 120 days -- the time in which refugee admissions to the U.S. are suspended by Trump’s order. “Many of the plaintiffs in this case will die if they wait 120 days,” she said.

The case is International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, 17-cv-361, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland (Greenbelt).