White House

Trump abandons tough stand on green card holders in face of court challenges

The Trump administration took a step back late Sunday from its sweeping temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, issuing a clarification that the order does not apply to green card holders “absent the receipt of significant derogatory information.”

“In applying the provisions of the president’s executive order, I hereby deem the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest,” Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said in a statement. “Accordingly, absent the receipt of significant derogatory information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare, lawful permanent resident status will be a dispositive factor in our case-by-case determinations.”

Kelly’s statement was followed by one from Rep. Mike McCaul, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, that suggested support for Trump’s sweeping measure might be fading in the face of chaos at airports throughout the nation, opposition from veterans groups, and five federal court rulings that questioned Trump’s authority to impose such change.

“In light of the confusion and uncertainty created in the wake of the president’s executive order, it is clear adjustments are needed,” McCaul said. “We should not simply turn away individuals who already have lawful U.S. visas or green cards – like those who have risked their lives serving alongside our forces overseas or who call America their home.”

Trump officials remained unapologetic, however, and insisted that everything was working well, and immigration advocates said they believed the White House was still pursuing a policy that would violate migrants’ rights.

Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy group assisting stranded travelers, said that qualifying entry on the absence of “significant derogatory information” leaves the door open to invasive questioning and detentions that immigration attorneys have worked all weekend to stop.

“I think there are still a lot of questions about how information is going to be collected,” Khera said.

“I would say the administration is still in a defiant mode,” Khera said. “I haven’t seen any indication that they’re in any way backing off.

A senior administration official offered a similar assessment, insisting the order never applied to green card holders, but then adding, in a seeming contradiction, that green-card holders would be subjected to additional questioning.

The administration official also dismissed the importance of the court rulings against the order – DHS Secretary Kelly in a separate statement had promised to obey them – and said disruption caused by the order had been “minimal.” He cited the same figures that press secretary Sean Spicer had used in Sunday television appearances that only 109 of 325,000 arriving foreigners had been held for questioning under the new order.

“It’s our view that it’s been implemented successfully and according to administration policy,” the official said. “It has also resulted in extremely minimal disruption that more than outweighs the enormous benefits to our security.”

The rhetorical gamesmanship came after a weekend of conflict over the order that was played out in the nation’s busiest international airports and in five federal courtrooms where judges intervened to prevent the deportation of permanent residents and holders of valid U.S. visas.

In one case, Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California, ordered the government to cooperate in the return of a passenger who had been denied entry and sent back to Iran.

Wrenching scenes of family members waiting for detained loved ones dominated international arrival terminals while small armies of volunteer attorneys worked around the clock to stop deportations and free detained passengers.

Airports remained the front line in the battle. Crowds gathered at facilities in Miami, Dallas, Cleveland, Charlotte, New York, Washington, San Francisco and Chicago. Exasperation grew on all sides, and some immigration officials threw up their hands.

“They finally stopped talking to us altogether and told us to call President Trump,” said Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project.

A group funded by prominent libertarians Charles and David Koch, among the biggest players in U.S. politics, slammed the travel ban. Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the White House, and a chanting crowd of hundreds also besieged the entrance to the Trump Hotel a few blocks away.

Trump and his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, rejected charges that the president had exceeded his authority under the Constitution.

But Trump also issued a statement of his own, pledging that after 90 days, the United States would begin issuing visas “to all countries,” including the seven majority-Muslim countries encompassed by Friday’s order – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

“My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months,” the statement said. “The seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror. To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting.”

The legal drama over the order grabbed world attention. Leaders of key European allies rejected Trump’s order, and Britain’s foreign secretary went so far as to call it “divisive and wrong.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said through a spokesman that the war on terrorism “does not justify placing people of a certain background or a certain faith under general suspicion.”

Foreign consternation, however, took a backseat to the fast-paced drama at U.S. airports and federal courtrooms where judges presided over rare weekend hearings.

In one typical scene, hundreds of protesters gathered at San Francisco International Airport for a second day Sunday to seek to halt the imminent deportation of two elderly Iranian visa holders in violation of federal rulings barring the removals, said Elica Vafaie of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

The class-action lawsuit challenging the deportations of those detained as a result of the executive order was filed in federal court in Brooklyn at about 5 a.m. Saturday.

Judge Ann Marie Donnelly, of the Brooklyn-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, heard oral arguments at a hastily arranged session about 7:30 p.m. Saturday. An attorney from Justice Department headquarters had to resort to making an appearance on speaker phone.

An Obama appointee who was confirmed by the Senate 95-2, Donnelly issued her three-page stay at about 9 p.m. Saturday night. While it is temporary, and does not lock in her longer-term decision expected in February, it shows her skepticism about at least part of the Trump order.

“The petitioners have a strong likelihood of success in establishing that (their) removal . . . violates their rights to due process and equal protection guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” Donnelly wrote.

Her ruling was only the first in a legal scramble that saw multiple federal judges facing similar pleas, and in some cases issuing similar-sounding orders.

In Boston, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs and U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Gail Dein on Sunday issued a three-page temporary restraining order blocking detention or deportation of individuals covered by Trump’s order. The judges’ action is in effect for seven days. Burroughs was appointed by Obama.

Late Saturday, a Virginia-based federal judge Leonie Brinkema, a former federal prosecutor appointed by President Bill Clinton, issued a more limited ruling, blocking the deportation of lawful permanent U.S. residents held at Dulles International Airport.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle, who was appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan, also blocked specific deportations.

And Judge Gee in California ordered the Department of Homeland Security to return airline passenger Ali Khoshbahkti Vayegan to the United States and “admit him under the terms of his previously approved visa.”

“I think there will be broader challenges,” attorney Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union said Sunday, “but we needed to stop the immediate harm.”

The next legal steps will unfold over a few weeks. Gelernt, deputy director of ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said that the Justice Department is now scheduled to file a legal brief with the Brooklyn-based judge by Feb. 12, The immigrants’ attorneys will respond within 48 hours of that, and in time the judge will make a formal ruling.

Refugee advocates and civil libertarians said Sunday thousands of volunteer attorneys had mobilized since Friday, often showing up at airports of their own accord.

Advocacy groups warned that travelers from countries on the black list were still at risk of detention or removal. They recommended that travelers with concerns arrange to enter the United States at Boston’s Logan airport, where the most sweeping court order was in effect.

The advocacy groups repeated stories of people being handcuffed, quizzed about their beliefs and held without legal counsel; in some cases, authorities tried to coerce travelers into surrendering their green cards or accepting voluntary departures.

“Even though they’re not being deported, their legal rights continue to be egregiously violated,” said Heller, whose refugee assistance group is mobilizing immigration attorneys at airports across the country.

Meanwhile, several thousand people assembled along the northeast side of the White House Sunday, chanting slogans such as, “Refugees are welcome here – no hate, no fear!” Several brought back signs they had carried during the Women’s March a week earlier, including “The whole world is watching.”

Suzanne Blue Star, a D.C. resident who is a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe of South Dakota, said she was driven to come by what she called the “unconstitutionality” of Trump’s executive order.

“This is just the tip of the ice berg,” she said. “The rallies are going to continue (until) senators and legislators start changing their minds. These are just the warning signs of things to come.”

Stuart Leavenworth and Franco Ordoñez of the Washington bureau and Lee Williams and Diane Smith of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4