- Associated Press - Friday, February 3, 2017

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - A judge on Friday allowed Virginia to join a lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump’s travel ban, transforming a case that had been focused on a narrow sliver of those affected to a battle that could affect the rights of tens of thousands of would-be immigrants and visitors.

The lawsuit was initially filed on behalf of lawful permanent residents, known as green-card holders, who were swept up in the initial chaos surrounding the executive order. The government has since clarified that green-card holders are exempt from the travel ban.

At a hearing Friday, though, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema granted motions to join the lawsuit from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, as well as a Sudanese woman who was trying to enter the country on a fiancee visa. Virginia is challenging the revocation of a wide variety of visas, including student and work visas.

During the hearing, Brinkema indicated a willingness to consider any case in which a person had gone through the process to obtain a lawful visa only to have it revoked under the travel ban.

A government lawyer, Erez Reuveni, said that more than 100,000 people have had their visas revoked as a result of the travel ban. The State Department later disputed that figure, and said the actual number is fewer than 60,000. State Department officials said the 100,000 figure includes diplomatic visas exempted from the travel ban, and expired visas.

Reuveni unsuccessfully argued against expanding the lawsuit, saying it should stay narrowly focused on green-card holders. He also made a distinction between people who happened to be in the midst of traveling when the executive order was implemented and were caught off guard, as opposed to people who have now had their visas canceled and know that travel, for now, is not permitted. He said the government may be willing to accommodate the former category on a case-by-case basis, but not the latter.

Brinkema questioned the logic of that. “People who’ve already got permission (to enter the country on visas), why should that not be honored?” she asked.

She said she was pleased that the government seemed to be willing to accommodate some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit on a case-by-case basis, but said that would ultimately be insufficient. She also acknowledged that the executive branch has “almost unfettered discretion” in setting immigration policy, but not absolute discretion. She suggested existing visa holders wanting to travel to the U.S. could have valid cases, but that new applicants might not be successful in bringing a challenge.

The executive order signed by Trump suspends immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and all refugee resettlement for 120 days. It provides exceptions for refugees who practice a religion that makes them a minority in their home country; Trump has said he wanted to give persecuted Christians priority treatment in the refugee program.

A federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked the ban Friday at the request of Washington state and Minnesota. U.S. District Judge James Robart granted a temporary restraining order that’s effective nationwide.

Virginia Solicitor General Stuart Raphael, who argued on behalf of Herring, said the state has identified multiple categories of people affected by the ban, especially college students. He cited a student at George Mason University who is from Libya and has been stuck in Turkey, unable to return to campus. He said there are at least 350 students at Virginia public universities from the seven countries on the travel-ban list who could be affected by the executive order.

After the hearing, Herring said he was grateful Brinkema allowed Virginia to join the case. He said the ban has struck a nerve with the public because it “touches on so many core values that we as Americans hold dear.”

“(T)his case gets to the heart of who we are as Americans,” he said in a statement. “We are a country and a Commonwealth that are welcoming and open. We do not discriminate based on religion, race, or national origin.”

Brinkema, who oversaw the case of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, also says she had never seen the public outpouring that she has seen in this case.

“This order touched something in the U.S. that I’ve never seen before,” she said. “People are quite upset.”

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