Seattle federal judge orders nationwide halt to immigration ban

Hundreds of people protested President Trump's original travel ban at LAX in January.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In one of the strongest blows yet to President Trump’s controversial immigration ban, a federal judge in Seattle on Friday ordered an immediate nationwide halt to enforcement of the order that has caused havoc at airports and sown confusion among thousands of visa holders and refugees.

The temporary restraining order from U.S. District Judge James Robart blocks the federal government from enforcing measures that suspended refugee admissions and most other immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries until a new system of “extreme vetting” is put in place.

The White House immediately responded with a statement calling the ruling “outrageous” and said it would seek an emergency stay. A revised White House statement later omitted the word “outrageous,” but repeated the president’s view that the executive order signed Jan. 27 “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” was within the law.


But on Saturday morning, the Department of Homeland Security said it had suspended “any and all actions” related to the travel ban.

“DHS personnel will resume inspection of travelers in accordance with standard policy and procedure,” the department’s statement said.

The judge’s order Friday came in response to a lawsuit filed by the state of Washington and joined by Minnesota. The suit argued that the president’s moves had amounted to religious discrimination against Muslims in violation of the Constitution.

The judge did not address the substance of those legal arguments, but suggested in court that the states had a good chance of winning the case.

“The law is a powerful thing. It has the ability to hold everyone accountable to it, and that includes the president of the United States,” Washington state Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson said at a news conference.

The judge’s decision goes further than a ruling earlier this week from a Los Angeles federal judge that also ordered a temporary halt to Trump’s immigration ban. This one orders a temporary stop to nearly every major portion of the administration’s order, including the 120-day ban on all refugee admissions, indefinite suspension of the admission of Syrian refugees and preference for refugees who are members of persecuted religious minorities.


Also affected is a blanket, 90-day block on admission of citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

“It’s a wonderful day for the rule of law in our country,” said Washington state’s solicitor general, Noah Purcell, who argued the case. “The order was haphazardly carried out and poorly thought up.”

Activist groups that have been running legal aid operations at airports and operating hotlines for immigrants already were celebrating.

“Airport officials have informed us that Customs and Border Protection has been told to not implement the executive order at JFK,” said Camille Mackler, an attorney at the New York Immigration Coalition who has been part of a group of lawyers stationed at John F. Kennedy airport all week.

“This is a win. It’s an affirmation that these orders are not necessarily enforceable and not necessarily legal, and not a representation of this country and its values,” she said.

Officials at Los Angeles International Airport already had relaxed security procedures after an L.A. federal judge’s order earlier this week temporarily suspended Trump’s travel ban on immigrants from the seven countries who had visas.

The administration said it would seek a review of the Seattle judge’s order. “At the earliest possible time, the Department of Justice intends to file an emergency stay of this order and defend the executive order of the President, which we believe is lawful and appropriate,” the White House said in a statement. “The President’s order is intended to protect the homeland and he has the constitutional authority and responsibility to protect the American people.”

The decision came as a Justice Department lawyer, addressing a hearing Friday on another challenge to the travel ban in Virginia, revealed that 100,000 visas had been revoked following the executive order — a figure the State Department later estimated at closer to 60,000.

Presumably, the court’s order would require most or all of those visas to be reinstated.

Already Friday night, a European airline in Iran reported that it was allowing any traveler with a valid visa to board its U.S.-bound flights. Most travelers from Tehran earlier in the day had been blocked unless they held a green card.

Tens of thousands of protesters who swelled airport parking lots and international arrival terminals this week have seen the executive order as an attempt to associate Muslims with terrorism and bar them from the country.

The order caused confusion at airports around the country, as holders of green cards and visas from the affected countries who were en route to the U.S. this week were detained in airports for hours and sometimes deported upon arrival or not allowed onto flights traveling to the U.S.

After civil rights groups filed lawsuits on behalf of those who had green cards designating them as permanent legal residents, the Trump administration relented and clarified that green card holders would be exempt from the travel ban. Government officials also reversed a prior position this week and said that dual citizens who were from one of the restricted nations and another nation not on the list would be exempt.

With the Seattle judge’s order — which followed several other more limited rulings around the country — one of the new administration’s most significant initiatives appears to be in peril.

“This new order, even if temporary, seems to go beyond the other lawsuits,” said Margo Schlanger, a University of Michigan law professor who was formerly a civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“The states got everything they asked for,” said Schlanger, who has tracked dozens of lawsuits against the president’s travel ban. She said the case could pave the way for an eventual ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Washington was the first state to file suit against Trump’s immigration order, and its case was backed by large corporations such as Seattle-based Amazon and Expedia, which employ immigrants from the barred nations and said Trump’s order harms the region’s economy and families.

Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii and Virginia also have gone to court over the president’s immigration restrictions, as have several civil rights groups across the country, and several of those cases, including the one in Los Angeles, have led to temporary court orders against portions of the immigration ban.

The Seattle ruling was one of several court cases on the executive order heard Friday.

Earlier in the day, a federal judge in Boston refused to extend an order prohibiting federal officials from detaining or deporting people with valid visas or green cards. The suit had been filed on behalf of two University of Massachusetts professors from Iran, who subsequently were admitted to the U.S.

Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton’s ruling in that case said the American Civil Liberties Union failed to show that the initial restraining order pertaining to those seeking entry to the country was still needed.

Like the judge in the Seattle case, he did not rule on the constitutional issues, and those aspects of the case will proceed.

Critics of the ban said the court order, even if it is extended beyond a temporary restraining order, is not a permanent solution.

“This decision is a short-term relief for thousands of people whose lives have been upended, but Congress must step in and block this unlawful ban for good,” Eric Ferrero, the Amnesty International USA spokesman, said in a statement.

Times staff writer Kaleem reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Anderson reported from Seattle. Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran.


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Feb. 4, 8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with an announcement that the Department of Homeland Security had suspended enforcement of the travel ban.

12:45 a.m.: This article was updated with information about U.S.-bound flights from Iran.

This article was originally published at 8:25 p.m. Feb. 3.