By Nicholas Kulish, Caitlin Dickerson And Charlie Savage
A federal judge in Seattle on Friday temporarily blocked President Trump’s week-old immigration order from being enforced nationwide, reopening America’s door to visa holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries and dealing the administration a humbling defeat.
The White House vowed late Friday to fight what it called an “outrageous” ruling, saying it would seek an emergency halt to the judge’s order as soon as possible and restore the president’s “lawful and appropriate order.”
“The president’s order is intended to protect the homeland and he has the constitutional authority and responsibility to protect the American people,” the White House said. A revised statement released later omitted the word “outrageous.”
And early Saturday morning, Mr. Trump tweeted in defense of his stand.
Courts around the country have halted aspects of Mr. Trump’s temporary ban on travel from the seven countries, but the Seattle ruling was the most far-reaching to date.
Airlines that had been stopping travelers from boarding planes to the United States were told by the government in a conference call Friday night to begin allowing them to fly, according to a person familiar with the call but who declined to be identified because it was a private discussion. The Trump administration, however, could again block the travelers if it were to win an emergency stay.
The federal government was “arguing that we have to protect the U.S. from individuals from these countries, and there’s no support for that,” said the judge, James Robart of Federal District Court for the Western District of Washington, an appointee of President George W. Bush, in a decision delivered from the bench.
The judge’s ruling was temporary, putting Mr. Trump’s policy on hold at least until the government and opponents of the order had a chance to make full arguments, or until the administration won a stay.
“What we’re seeing here is the courts standing up to the unconstitutional ban that President Trump imposed,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the A.C.L.U. “There’s obviously more litigation to come, but this is truly good news for the many people both in this country and abroad who have been unfairly targeted on the basis of their religion by this ban.”
It is not unusual for district courts to issue nationwide injunctions blocking executive actions, and the federal government must obey such injunctions even when other district courts have declined to issue injunctions in similar cases.
Judge Robart temporarily barred the administration from enforcing two parts of Mr. Trump’s order: its 90-day suspension of entry into the United States of people from the seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — and its limits on accepting refugees, including “any action that prioritizes the refugee claims of certain religious minorities.”
The order had suspended admissions of any refugees for 120 days, and of Syrian refugees indefinitely. The goal, the president said, was to evaluate the process for vetting refugees and other immigrants in order to safeguard the country against terrorism.
The order said that when immigration from the seven countries resumed, persecuted religious minorities would be given preference, and in an interview the day of the signing, Mr. Trump said the United States would give Christians from those countries priority because they had suffered “more so than others.”
Judge Robart made clear that his order applied nationwide, citing a similar nationwide injunction from a federal district court in Texas that had blocked President Barack Obama’s plan to shield some undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to legally work in the United States.
Since Mr. Trump signed his order on Jan. 27, there has been widespread confusion over the policy and disagreement over how it was being carried out, flummoxing immigration lawyers, government officials and travelers. Shortly before the Seattle ruling, a different federal judge, Nathaniel M. Gorton in Boston, ruled in favor of the government by declining to extend a temporary halt to the order in that jurisdiction.
Judge Gorton, who was appointed to the bench by the first President George Bush, said that while the nation’s immigration history was a source of great pride and that the plaintiffs in that case — Iranian nationals who are academics — had compelling stories, “the public interest in safety and security in this ever more dangerous world is strong as well.”
But that ruling was soon rendered moot, at least for now, by the Seattle ruling.
The administration has been criticized for issuing its order without any warning to refugees and visa holders who were on their way to the United States. Some arrived at airports for flights and were turned away.
The president’s order allowed for exceptions in the “national interest,” but lawyers for some travelers had described getting one as a Kafkaesque exercise, with the State Department’s website warning that no emergency applications would be heard, and Customs and Border Protection agents at United States airports all but unreachable because their clients were not being allowed to board planes.
“It’s quite clear it was not all that thought out,” Judge Leonie Brinkema of Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., said in yet another court hearing held Friday. “As a result there has been chaos.”
Protests over the policy continued on Friday, including a large group that gathered in a parking lot of Kennedy International Airport in New York for the Friday Prayer.
One big question surrounded the number of people who were affected by the travel ban.
Besides barring refugees and other visa holders from the seven countries from entering the United States, the administration also revoked, at least temporarily, all visas from the seven countries, including those for people currently living in the United States. The revocations, which were not publicly announced but were revealed during court proceedings, meant that anyone who lost their visa would be unable to re-enter the United States if they left.
In the Virginia courtroom, spectators gasped when a lawyer for the government told Judge Brinkema, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, that more than 100,000 visas had been revoked as part of Mr. Trump’s order. A State Department official later contradicted that number, saying that it mistakenly included diplomatic visas that were untouched by the ban as well as expired visas.
The true figure was “fewer than 60,000,” said William Cocks, a spokesman for the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
“To put that number in context, we issued over 11 million immigrant and nonimmigrant visas in fiscal year 2015,” he said in a statement.
Because the court fights so far have centered on whether judges should impose and keep in place temporary restraining orders, the legal arguments in the last few days have centered on the government’s contention that there is “no potential irreparable harm” to justify keeping the extraordinary orders in place pending fuller briefing and arguments.
But Bob Ferguson, the Washington attorney general, who opposed the Trump administration in the Seattle case, said the decision Friday “shuts down the executive order nationwide and immediately.”
“I hope the federal government will understand what they did was unconstitutional and unlawful,” he said.