WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court handed President Trump a temporary victory Tuesday, blocking a lower court decision that would have greatly expanded the number of refugees exempted from his controversial travel ban.
The high court is scheduled to hear arguments next month in the broader constitutional challenge to the travel ban from states and immigrant rights groups. The current dispute is over which immigrants and refugees can enter in the meantime.
Trump administration lawyers asked the court on Monday to set aside last week's federal appeals court ruling that would allow more refugees into the United States while the case is pending. That ruling was due to take effect Tuesday because the lower court had said thousands of refugees were "gravely imperiled."
The administration argued that by granting entry to any refugees who had been matched up with a resettlement agency in the U.S., the lower court went far beyond the type of personal relationship Trump required.
Justice Department lawyers noted that in its June 26 decision allowing the travel ban to go into effect, the Supreme Court said the refugees eligible for exemptions should include "students who have been admitted to study at an American university, workers who have accepted jobs at an American company, and lecturers who come to speak to an American audience."
Challengers countered on Tuesday that the court should not get involved in "ensuring that every possible refugee is excluded."
"The government retains the authority to bar tens of thousands of refugees from entering the country, as indeed it has done for months," lawyers for Hawaii, one of the lead challengers, argued. "The lower courts have simply applied this court’s standard to protect vulnerable refugees and the American entities that have been eagerly preparing to welcome them to our shores."
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After a series of court defeats for Trump's proposed travel ban, the Supreme Court in June said parts of it could go into effect pending the outcome of the broader case. A decision isn't expected until next spring.
In the meantime, the court said travelers from the six targeted Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — can bypass the travel ban and enter the U.S. if they can prove they have a "bona fide" relationship with a U.S. person or entity.
The Trump administration at first defined that close relationship as immediate relatives, including spouses and spouses-to-be, children and parents. Federal District Court Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii later ordered the list expanded to include grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws.
The administration also decided that only refugees who have a personal relationship with a U.S. citizen or organization should be allowed to enter. But Watson disagreed and ordered officials to admit a broader array of refugees.
Last month, the justices said additional relatives deserved entry, but not additional refugees, leaving the appeals court in California to sort out the details. That court, the most liberal in the nation, last week sided with Watson rather than the justices.
In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel rejected the administration's interpretation of who should be allowed entry into the United States, saying "the government does not offer a persuasive explanation for why a mother-in-law is clearly a bona fide relationship, in the Supreme Court’s prior reasoning, but a grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, or cousin is not."
In its request regarding refugees Monday, the Justice Department dropped its objections to that part of the lower court ruling, noting the Supreme Court had favored the expanded list of relatives.