A federal judge ordered the Trump administration this week to stop blocking travelers trying to reach the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, delivering the latest and largest blow yet to the president’s extreme vetting policy.
Judge Andre Birotte Jr.’s ruling added yet another level of confusion to an already chaotic situation, as all sides debated who is now allowed to come into the U.S.
The judge issued a temporary restraining order late Tuesday, saying American officials could not block entry to anyone who had a “valid immigrant visa.” Agents have been blocking people from getting onto U.S. flights if they showed passports from any of the countries affected by the temporary travel ban.
“Plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreparable harm,” the judge said in issuing his order.
But it was unclear how much teeth his ruling had, since the State Department provisionally revoked most of the visas in the wake of President Trump’s executive order Friday. That meant it was unclear whether anyone still had a “valid” visa under the judge’s order.
Homeland Security Department officials declined to comment on the ruling, citing the ongoing court case.
Mr. Trump’s order put a 90-day hold on new admissions from Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Iran. It also paused the refugee admission program for 120 days. In both cases, the halt was intended to give officials a chance to improve screening.
The ban is relatively popular, with polls showing more people support the ban than oppose it.
Federal agencies, though, have toiled to carry out the policy, struggling first with a botched rollout and then with multiple court rulings. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have said the administration goofed in keeping the order secret, preventing airports, airlines and even its own agencies from getting ready.
“While someone at DHS might have known this was coming, they clearly were not given the opportunity to prepare,” Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said after a classified briefing Wednesday.
She said the top officials who carried out the order didn’t even gather until after Mr. Trump signed the document.
“No wonder it was chaotic and rocky,” she said.
That chaos was compounded by multiple court rulings over the weekend demanding that agents stop detaining those who were already in transit at the time of the order, and who arrived on valid visas.
But those rulings didn’t apply to those who were still overseas and whom the administration said it could bar from boarding flights.
As of Wednesday morning, some 940 people had been denied boarding.
Depending on how Homeland Security interprets Judge Birotte’s order, those travelers may now be allowed to enter the U.S.
“Even should the United States seek emergency interlocutory appeal to the 9th Circuit, it is likely that at least a week will elapse before such appeal can be decided. In the interim, it is entirely possible that many affected visa holders can travel safely to the United States,” said Immigration Daily, an email newsletter for immigration lawyers.
The outstanding question is whether anyone still has a valid visa. In a Jan. 27 memo, the State Department announced it was “provisionally” revoking most visas from citizens of the seven countries.
Judge Birotte, in his order, banned the department “from canceling validly obtained and issued immigrant visas” from those who were part of his lawsuit and ordered officials to give back the passports with already valid visas.
The administration has already relaxed its own policy twice. It quickly issued a blanket waiver for green card holders, or legal permanent immigrants to the U.S., who were traveling overseas but wanted to return.
The administration also said Iraqis traveling on special visas given to those who aided the U.S. war effort would be admitted.
Nearly 1,700 travelers had earned waivers under those two carve-outs as of Wednesday morning.
Two green card holders have been denied entry. One was excluded based on a criminal record, and the other withdrew his request for entry and returned to Canada, CBP said.
Officials also acknowledged some early goofs, saying airlines “overinterpreted” the order and rejected some Iraqi translators who held special visas. CBP said it was trying to track them down to let them know they were welcome.
Immigration advocates have accused U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers of going rogue, flouting one New York judge’s order that they not detain anyone based on Mr. Trump’s order.
But top department officials insist their agents followed the judge’s instructions.
“To the best of our knowledge, no CBP officer knowingly, intentionally violated the court order,” Secretary John F. Kelly told reporters on Tuesday.