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Challenge that blocked first Trump travel ban is settled

In March, protesters gathered in Harvard Square in reaction to a travel ban targeting majority Muslim nations.
In March, protesters gathered in Harvard Square in reaction to a travel ban targeting majority Muslim nations.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File 2017

NEW YORK — The legal challenge that helped free scores of travelers who were detained at airports around the country in the confusing early days of President Trump’s travel ban, prompting thousands of demonstrators to demand their release, was settled Thursday in a Brooklyn courtroom.

Under the settlement agreement, the government must identify and send a letter to every individual who was improperly barred from the country under the original travel ban and provide a list of free legal services that can help recipients obtain visas or other entry documents. Approval is not guaranteed, but the government agreed to process their applications in good faith.

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“For the people who were never able to come back, this is the best opportunity we can give them,” said Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project.

The agreement did not provide any damages or any award of legal fees to the groups that fought the ba in court. People who never reached a US airport because they were kept from boarding flights are not covered by the settlement.

“Although this case has been moot since March, when the president rescinded the original executive order and issued a new one that does not restrict the entry of Iraqi nationals, the US government has elected to settle this case on favorable terms,” Nicole Navas Oxman, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The travel ban was an attempt to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The original version of the executive order imposing the ban was issued in January. After that order was blocked in court, Trump issued a revised version, which will be argued before the Supreme Court this fall.

The initial ban was widely viewed as a political debacle for the young administration. John F. Kelly, who was secretary of Homeland Security at the time and is now White House chief of staff, confirmed he had not seen the order until after the president signed it. The White House had not asked for a legal review. Some border control officials arrived at work the following morning unsure how to interpret the president’s order.

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Travelers from affected countries were in the air on their way to the United States with valid visas when the order barring their entry was signed. Scores of refugees and immigrants found themselves trapped in airports. Foreign students enrolled at US universities who had gone home for winter holidays were blocked from returning. Legal permanent residents who had traveled on vacation were detained.

Hameed Khalid Darweesh, the first-named plaintiff in the case, arrived at Kennedy Airport and watched his wife and children pass through customs and leave the arrivals area of the terminal; he was detained. An Iraqi who had worked for the United States in Iraq at great personal risk, he became a symbol of the travel ban.

Lawyers ready to represent detained travelers for free converged on airports — and so did protesters, chanting for the release of detainees. A federal judge in Brooklyn ruled the next day that the government could not deport them.

It’s unclear how many people the settlement covers. The week after the ban, Customs and Border Protection said 721 people had been denied boarding for the United States. Many others were detained on arrival. Still others were returned to their points of departure.

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When the ban was revised in March, Iraq was removed from the list of predominantly Muslim countries it covered. The revision also exempted permanent residents and visa holders.

Even so, two federal appeals courts blocked some central parts of the revised ban.