More People Are Now Exempt From Trump's Travel Ban

A federal judge in Hawaii ruled that grandparents and other close family members should be allowed into the country. The Justice Department is appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court.

James Lawlor Duggan / Reuters

Updated at 2:20 p.m. ET

The U.S. Supreme Court is on something of a summer vacation. But the ongoing legal battle over President Trump’s travel ban is taking no time off.

A federal district court in Hawaii ruled Thursday night that a category of travelers previously blocked by the directive can now enter the United States: the grandparents and other close family members of U.S. residents coming from countries listed under the ban. In doing so, the court rejected the administration’s narrow view of a Supreme Court decision last month and reopened entry for thousands more potential visa applicants.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions denounced the move on Friday and said the Justice Department would appeal the ruling directly back to the Supreme Court. “By this decision, the district court has improperly substituted its policy preferences for the national security judgments of the Executive branch in a time of grave threats, defying both the lawful prerogatives of the Executive Branch and the directive of the Supreme Court,” he said in a statement.

In the Thursday ruling, Judge Derrick Watson wrote that the government’s exclusion of grandparents in particular was “the antithesis of common sense.” The high court had said anyone with a “bona fide relationship” to someone living in the United States could enter despite the ban, which the Trump administration took to mean parents, spouses, children, and other “close familial relationships.” At the same time, the administration explicitly said grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and siblings-in-law would be excluded.

The state of Hawaii filed motions challenging that determination in court, arguing the justices’ order should be interpreted broadly. In his ruling, Watson agreed. “Had the Supreme Court intended to protect only immediate family members and parents-in-law, surely it could have said so,” he wrote. “It did not.”

Watson also rejected the government’s criteria for admitting refugees into the United States. The Court said in June that only a refugee with a “bona fide relationship” with a U.S. refugee agency would qualify for entry under the ban. In the State Department’s interpretation, this meant a documented relationship between a private resettlement agency and a specific refugee. But Watson sided with Hawaii’s challenge and ruled that assurances made between an agency on a refugee’s behalf and the State Department itself would qualify.

“An assurance from a United States refugee resettlement agency, in fact, meets each of the Supreme Court’s touchstones,” Watson wrote. “It is formal, it is a documented contract, it is binding, it triggers responsibilities and obligations, including compensation, it is issued specific to an individual refugee only when that refugee has been approved for entry by the Department of Homeland Security, and it is issued in the ordinary course, and historically has been for decades.

“Bona fide does not get any more bona fide than that,” he added.

The ban, which temporarily bars entry for most visa applicants from six Muslim-majority countries and for many refugees worldwide, has spent most of the last six months suppressed by injunctions from multiple federal appeals courts. The Trump administration has defended its order as a vital step for national security, while critics have charged that it amounts to the unconstitutional ban on Muslims that Trump once pledged to impose during the campaign.

After two federal appeals courts ruled against the second iteration of the ban in May and June, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to intervene. The Court said on the last day of its term last month that it would hear two lawsuits challenging it, Hawaii v. Trump and International Refugee Assistance Program v. Trump, later this year when the justices return from summer recess. Until then, they unanimously lifted part of the lower court injunctions to allow the ban to go into partial effect.

“In practical terms, this means that §2(c) may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States,” the Court said in an unsigned order on behalf of the justices, referring to the provision ordering the visa-application freeze. “All other foreign nationals are subject to the provisions of [the second version of the executive order].”

Only the Supreme Court can modify its own order, but lower courts have some discretion in interpreting its scope and application. That gave Watson the authority to determine how far the Court’s exemptions from the ban would extend. “What is clear from the Supreme Court’s decision is that this Court’s analysis is to be guided by consideration of whether foreign nationals have a requisite ‘connection’ or ‘tie’ to this country,” Watson wrote. “Put another way, context matters.”

The organizations challenging the travel ban in court praised his ruling. “While a partial ban remains in effect as a result of last month’s Supreme Court ruling, this decision limits its application to ensure that fewer refugees, families, and loved ones are discriminated against based solely on their religion or country of origin,” Karen Tumlin, the National Immigration Law Center’s legal director, said in a statement.