Supreme Court hands Trump victory in travel ban ruling, troubles refugee groups

A unanimous Supreme Court revived President Donald J. Trump's travel ban Monday, allowing the government to impose restrictions on some people coming to the United States from six mostly Muslim countries.

The unsigned opinion, which handed the president a legal and political victory after lower courts from Hawaii to Maryland blocked the ban, found the administration had a legitimate interest in "preserving national security" that outweighed the potential harm to foreign travelers.

But in a setback for the White House, the court also imposed broad exemptions, allowing travelers with a "bona fide relationship" in the United States to continue to enter the country. The court specifically exempted university students, lecturers, people who intend to live with relatives and employees of companies based here from the travel prohibitions.

While those exclusions will benefit some short-term visitors, the effect on refugees is less clear. Groups that work with refugees, including some based in Maryland, lamented the decision and predicted the impact would fall more heavily on vulnerable families trying to escape violence.

The justices granted the administration's request to hear the legal and constitutional dispute in the fall, and allowed portions of the ban to be implemented until then. At issue is an order banning travelers from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Libya and Yemen for 90 days while the administration reviews and revises its vetting procedures for them.

All along, Trump had voiced confidence he would prevail when the case reached the high court, and he described Monday's decision as a "clear victory" for national security.

"As president, I cannot allow people into our country who want to do us harm," Trump said in a statement. "I want people who can love the United States and all of its citizens, and who will be hardworking and productive."

Immigrants' rights lawyers and others who sued to block Trump's order were disappointed with the ruling and downplayed its impact.

David Rocah, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said he believes Trump's travel ban won't stand once the Supreme Court hears the case on the merits.

He also pointed to the exemptions included in the decision.

"It can't be enforced on anyone who has a preexisting connection to the United States," Rocah said. "That dramatically narrows the set of people to whom the ban potentially could be applied."

Trump's executive order also called for a 120-day pause on refugee travel to the United States — as well as decisions about applications — to give the Department of Homeland Security time to review its vetting procedures. The order also cut by more than half the number of refugees who will be admitted into the country this year, from a ceiling of 110,000 to 50,000.

In its decision Monday, the court applied the same standard to refugees, ruling that they must have an existing relationship to gain entry. It is not clear whether sponsorship by a U.S. resettlement program would fulfill that requirement.

"There are many unanswered questions as to how this narrowed injunction will affect resettlement agencies and the refugees we are committed to protecting," said Linda Hartke, president and CEO of the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

"What we do know is that the court's ruling will impact our immediate ability to provide safety and protection to those most vulnerable, including unaccompanied refugee minors, torture survivors, and those persecuted for their faith," she said.

Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Maryland, said the process of approving refugee resettlement already has "ground to a halt."

"The human impact has been tremendous on refugees," Chandrasekar said. "It doesn't do much for our public standing in the world [and] it actually does not make us any safer."

The groups have noted that refugees coming to the United States already are vetted heavily. Unlike in parts of Europe — where refugees from the crisis in Syria and elsewhere have amassed at borders — those coming to the United States must apply, and wait years to qualify.

"We just see no need to halt resettlement activity in order to undertake a security review," said Bill O'Keefe of Catholic Relief Services, which is based in Baltimore. "To punish them by further preventing their entry for 120 days seems grossly unfair and unnecessary."

Zainab Chaudry, Maryland outreach manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the group was surprised by the decision after several lower courts had halted Trump's ban. Chaudry went directly to an argument raised by attorneys fighting the Trump administration in the case: That the ban was really about fulfilling a campaign promise to stop Muslims from entering the country.

"The decision ignores the anti-Muslim bigotry at the heart of the Muslim ban," she said. "In this environment where we see an increase in anti-Muslim incidents and hate crimes, this decision is going to embolden anti-Muslim bigotry."

Several universities in Maryland, including Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, either did not respond to a request for comment or declined to comment. Many universities had previously spoken out against the ban over concerns about how it would affect their students and faculty.

All nine justices apparently agreed with the decision Monday. Three of its conservatives — Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch — said they would have gone further and allowed the entire order to take effect immediately.

"I fear that the court's remedy will prove unworkable," Thomas said for the three. "Today's compromise will burden executive officials with the task of deciding — on peril of contempt — whether individuals from the six affected countries who wish to enter the United States have a sufficient connection to a person or entity in this country."

Last month, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia upheld a district judge in Maryland who blocked Trump's order. The appeals court, in a 10-3 decision, said the executive order reflected an unconstitutional discrimination based on religion. Its opinion cited Trump's campaign pledge to enact a "Muslim ban."

Shortly afterward, the 9th Circuit Court in California upheld a district judge in Hawaii and ruled Trump's order was illegal because the president did not demonstrate a threat to national security.

Reaction from Maryland's congressional delegation split along partisan lines. Rep. Andy Harris, the state's sole Republican in Congress, applauded the ruling.

"As we have seen in recent months, groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are very real threats to the safety and security of the American people," the Baltimore County Republican said in a statement. "The federal government should utilize all available resources to protect its citizens."

Rep. Steny Hoyer said he was disappointed.

"This ban places our country in serious danger and undermines the very foundations of our democracy," the Southern Maryland Democrat said in a statement. "It hands a victory to ISIS and other terror groups by providing them with a potent tool for recruitment and radicalization."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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