A federal judge in Hawaii late Thursday afternoon ordered the Trump Administration to relax its new controls on immigrants, to allow the entry of more foreign relatives of U.S. residents and more refugees from around the world. The judge refused to put his new ruling on hold, even if the Administration now moved to appeal it, either to the Supreme Court or to a federal appeals court.
In a 26-page decision, U.S. District Judge Derrick K. Watson ruled that the Administration is interpreting too narrowly the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision on who among foreign travelers and refugees are entitled to enter the country under President Trump’s March 6 executive order.
The restrictions the government put into effect on June 29, the judge declared, were an “unduly restrictive reading” of the kind of family ties the Supreme Court had in mind and also lacked “common sense” about who constitutes a family.
And, for refugees, the judge ruled that a person seeking to enter the U.S. with that status is entitled to do so, under the Justices’ decision, if they have “an assurance from a United States refugee resettlement program” that they will be taken care of once they have arrived. In ruling that way, the judge rejected the government’s argument that such assurances were not sufficient to justify entry.
Those parts of the Watson ruling gave the state of Hawaii and its supporters what they had sought on those two points in challenging the Administration’s approach.
Refusing one key request by the challengers, the judge declined to order the government to allow refugees to enter if they have established a formal tie to a legal advocacy group, such as a refugee rights organization. Judge Watson said that the nature of such legal ties varies significantly from one situation to another, so he refused to order a “categorical” approach to entry based on a claim that a group has agreed to provide legal aid to a refugee.
In refusing to postpone the parts of his ruling relaxing the government’s entry restrictions on foreign nationals from six Mideast nations with Muslim majority populations and on refugees from around the globe, Judge Watson forced the government either to act promptly to obey the ruling, or else to ask a higher court to put his decision on hold pending an appeal.
Trump Administration lawyers had indicated that they may, but also that they may not, pursue an appeal if Judge Watson ordered relaxed entry provisions. They have talked of going directly to the Supreme Court, but, alternatively, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit if the Supreme Court indicated that that would be the proper path.
Thursday’s ruling marked the second time that Judge Watson had ruled against President Trump’s immigration executive order. He did so more broadly on March 29, blocking all of the key parts of the Trump restrictions. The Ninth Circuit Court upheld key parts of that decision, but did give the government permission to conduct studies of how to improve the “vetting” of foreigners seeking to travel to the U.S.
The Administration then took the issue to the Supreme Court, resulting in the June 26 decision. The Justices upheld Judge Watson’s order to the extent that it would allow the entry of foreign nationals or refugees if they have “any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” It did not spell out specifically what those words meant, but did give a few examples of family ties that were covered.
When the government started enforcing the restrictions three days later, it chose to allow the entry based on “close family relationships” so far as that phrase covered a parent, parent-in-law, spouse, fiancé, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, sibling (whether whole or half), and “step relationships.”
But the government said it would continue to exclude from the entry category grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law.
That excluded group of relatives were the ones that Hawaii and its supporters in the case asked Judge Watson to permit entry to the country, and he did just that, concluding that the Supreme Court’s ruling should be understood to include them.
“The government’s narrowly defined list finds no support in the careful language of the Supreme Court or even in the immigration statutes on which the government relies,” the judge wrote. He said the government had engaged in “cherry-picking” and added specifically that “in many cases, grandparents play an important role” in family life.
The Supreme Court used the same phrasing in referring to family ties that are claimed by foreign nationals from the Mideast nations and by refugees, and thus Judge Watson’s expansion of the eligible list applies as fully to refugees.
By refusing to delay his ruling, the judge intended that the government begin applying it immediately. It can refuse to do so only if it gets a postponement (“stay”) of the ruling either from the Supreme Court or the Ninth Circuit Court.