Trump travel ban upheld but earlier rulings leave it blocked

NEW YORK – President Donald Trump won an important victory in his efforts to restrict travel to the U.S. from six predominantly Muslim countries, even though he still can’t enforce it.

A Virginia judge refused to block the president’s revised travel ban in a decision that diverges from judges in two others states and sets up a potential showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court. The orders of the other judges keep the travel ban on hold.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga in Alexandria on Friday denied a request by Muslim activists for a temporary restraining order. They said Trump’s revised March 6 executive order — like the original before it — was a disguised “Muslim ban” that discriminated against immigrants based on their religion.

The judge rejected the argument, which had been successful in other courts around the country.

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The language of the order is neutral regarding religion and it “clearly has a stated secular purpose — to protect U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks,” Trenga wrote. The judge also rejected claims that the order’s intent may be derived from anti-Muslim statements made by Trump and his surrogates.

The bitter fight over Trump’s travel ban has become an early test of whether the president will be able to honor his campaign promises. Other than an early win in Boston, the administration has lost in courts across the country as technology companies, universities, civil-rights advocates and states including Washington, Hawaii and Minnesota mounted challenges.

The losses forced Trump to significantly revise his initial executive order, signed one week after he was sworn in, though the new version — which he called simply a “watered down” one — has also been blocked by courts. The second travel ban removed Iraq from the list and clarified that people from those countries who had already received visas could enter, as well as providing a more detailed rationale.

The Maryland judge put the 90-day ban on visas for people from the six nations on hold, reinforcing a broader ruling hours earlier out of Hawaii which additionally blocked a longer ban regarding refugees. The decisions stopped the second order from ever taking effect.

Trump slammed the rulings, saying at a rally held right after the Hawaii decision that they “make us look weak” and that the travel restrictions are needed to protect Americans from “radical Islamic terrorists.” The Justice Department said Trump has broad legal authority to regulate immigration.

The government is appealing the Maryland judge’s ruling.

“We disagree with the result reached by the court” in Virginia, said Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who wasn’t involved in the case. “The issue is now before the Fourth Circuit,” he said in reference to the appeals court in Richmond, Va.

“It does not surprise me that a judge would defer to the president in such matters,” said Stephen Wasby, a legal scholar at the State University of New York in Albany who isn’t involved in the case and is critical of the travel ban. “This is immigration and foreign affairs, an area in which judges are more deferential to the executive.”

He said the Fourth Circuit may combine the Virginia case with the Maryland case as part of the appeal process, he said.

The Virginia case was brought by Linda Sarsour, a well-known Muslim activist from Brooklyn, N.Y., and national co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington that took place the day after Trump’s inauguration. The suit was the first that sought to use Trump’s recent public remarks against him court, in addition to his comments about Muslims during the campaign.

At a hearing in Alexandria on March 21, the government’s lawyer, Dennis Barghaan, said another ruling blocking the executive order wasn’t warranted because of the injunctions issued in Hawaii and Maryland. But Gadeir Abbas, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients are still being harmed because “the status of the other orders isn’t durable, and they could be reversed at any time.”

Abbas pointed to Trump’s remarks at the rally, saying they showed the president’s real motive is a bias against Islam. That would violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits any government preference for one religion over another.

“President Trump, hours after Hawaii enjoined the executive order, said three times in 10 minutes, in front of thousands of people and with television cameras pointed in his face, that the new executive order is a watered down version of the first,” which courts had said unfairly targeted Muslims, Abbas said.

The Virginia judge rejected those concerns, saying the changes reduced the relevance of the president’s prior statements.

Suggesting otherwise would require “a psychoanalysis of the drafter’s heart of hearts,” Trenga said.

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