A federal appeals court on Thursday denied the Trump administration's request to block more travelers from six Muslim-majority nations and permitted all vetted refugees to be admitted.
The decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals could significantly decrease the number of people stopped from traveling to the U.S. under President Trump's travel ban. The ban currently halts nearly all refugee resettlement and travel by foreign nationals from six mostly Muslim countries unless they have close connections in the U.S.
The panel of judges, Michael Hawkins, Ronald Gould and Richard Paez, did not decide whether the ban is legal. That question is left to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments over the issue on Oct. 10.
Instead, the judges, all Democratic appointees, ruled on the scope of the ban.
The Justice Department said it would challenge Thursday's ruling in the Supreme Court "to vindicate the executive branch's duty to protect the nation."
Hawaii Atty. Gen. Douglas Chin said the state "will keep fighting back," adding: "Today's decision by the 9th Circuit keeps families together."
Trump's ban, ordered in January and later modified, barred travel to the U.S. by nationals from Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Iran for 90 days and stopped all refugee resettlement for 120 days.
Federal appeals courts had blocked the ban until June, when the Supreme Court said it could take effect as long as it did not stop travel of anyone with a "bona fide" relationship to the U.S.
Aside from a handful of examples — such as people who have university admission and employment offers in the U.S. and those residing in the U.S. who have parents-in-law abroad — the Supreme Court did not define what counts as a bona fide U.S. connection.
The Trump administration argued that family connections should include only people with a parent, spouse, child, adult son or daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, sibling, fiance or fiancee, or a parent-in-law in the U.S.
In July, a federal judge in Hawaii ruled that exceptions also had to be made for grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and brothers- and sisters-in-law.
The 9th Circuit agreed.
"It is hard to see how a grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, sibling-in-law, or cousin can be considered to have no bona fide relationship with their relative in the United States," the court said.
The Trump administration also argued that a refugee's relationship to a resettlement agency by itself did not constitute a bona fide U.S. connection.
The Hawaii judge disagreed, clearing the way for travel by about 24,000 refugees who had been approved for U.S. resettlement but blocked by the travel ban.
The Trump administration appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which placed a hold on the judge's ruling on refugees until the 9th Circuit could consider the case.
In upholding the Hawaii judge's decision, the 9th Circuit said it considered "the individualized screening process necessary to obtain a formal assurance" and the "concrete harms" faced by resettlement agencies when refugees are excluded.
"If a refugee does not arrive in the United States, or is delayed in arriving, the agency will lose the money and resources it has already expended in preparing for arrival, including securing rental housing, buying furniture and arranging for basic necessities," the panel said.
More than 175,000 refugees currently lack formal assurances and will not be allowed entry, the 9th Circuit said.
The court said its ruling would take effect in five days.
"Refugees' lives remain in vulnerable limbo during the pendency of the Supreme Court's stay," the panel said. "Refugees have only a narrow window of time to complete their travel, as certain security and medical checks expire and must then be reinitiated."
6 p.m.: This article has been updated with reaction from the Justice Department and Hawaii's attorney general.