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Relatives win reprieve from Trump travel ban in federal court

George Lee/Star-Advertiser/Associated Press

Judge Derrick K. Watson ruled that a temporary ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries and on refugees should not prevent grandparents and other close relatives of residents from entering the United States.

NEW YORK — A federal judge in Hawaii ruled that the Trump administration’s temporary ban on travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries and on refugees should not prevent grandparents and other close relatives of residents from entering the United States.

The judge, Derrick K. Watson of US District Court in Honolulu, also declared late Thursday that refugees with ties to a resettlement agency that was committed to receiving them had a relationship that made them eligible to enter the country.

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If it stands, the decision could open the gates for thousands of refugees who have been cleared to enter the United States but who lacked the close relationships as defined by the Trump administration.

Opponents of the ban cheered the ruling, while Attorney General Jeff Sessions sharply criticized it. The administration late Friday appealed the ruling directly to the US Supreme Court.

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In another development, The Washington Post reported Friday that the Trump administration is weighing a new policy to dramatically expand the Department of Homeland Security’s powers to expedite the deportations of some illegal immigrants.

Since 2004, the agency has been authorized to bypass immigration courts only for immigrants who had been living in the country illegally for less than two weeks and were apprehended within 100 miles of the border.

Under the proposal, the agency would be empowered to seek the expedited removal of unauthorized immigrants apprehended anywhere in the United States who cannot prove they have lived in the country continuously for more than 90 days, according to a 13-page internal agency memo obtained by the Post.

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No final decisions have been made.

The travel ban decision in Hawaii, meanwhile, comes after last month’s Supreme Court ruling that a scaled-back version of the travel ban could proceed. Under the Supreme Court ruling, applicants who could show a “bona fide relationship” with a “person or entity” in the United States would be exempt from the 90-day ban on travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and the 120-day ban on refugees from around the world.

The Supreme Court did not specify which individuals or entities would qualify as close relations. However, the State Department said that they would include spouses, parents, parents-in-law, children, sons- and daughters-in-law, fiancés, and siblings of those already in the United States.

They would not include grandparents, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, and brothers- and sisters-in-law. The department said it was following guidelines laid out in immigration law.

It also decided that a resettlement agency’s relationship to those it planned to settle in the United States would not circumvent the ban.

Hawaii, one of the Democratic-led states that have been fighting the ban, challenged the administration’s interpretation of what constitutes a close relationship. Watson agreed that the White House contradicted the Supreme Court’s order.

“Common sense, for instance, dictates that close family members be defined to include grandparents,” he wrote. “Indeed, grandparents are the epitome of close family members. The government’s definition excludes them. That simply cannot be.”

‘Grandparents are the epitome of close family members. The government’s definition excludes them. That simply cannot be.’

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The judge also said that a refugee’s ties to a refugee resettlement agency met the standard set by the Supreme Court for a bona fide relationship to an entity here.

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.

It was unclear when or if the ruling would take effect. In quickly challenging the ruling before the Supreme Court, the administration is bypassing the San Francisco-based Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which has ruled against the government.

“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,” Sessions said.

“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,” he said.

Watson and other federal judges had ruled that the travel ban unconstitutionally discriminated against Muslims.

The Supreme Court did not answer that question but agreed to hear arguments in the fall. In the meantime, it allowed a partial ban to proceed, affecting those without bona fide relationships in the United States, the ones least likely to win legal protection.

Under his executive order, President Trump capped the number of refugee admissions in the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30 at 50,000, down from 110,000 allowed by President Barack Obama. But the Supreme Court said that refugees with bona fide relationships in the United States should be admitted even if the government reached the 50,000 cap, which it did this past week.

Watson’s ruling could help more than 24,000 refugees who had already been vetted and approved by the United States.

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