Shortly after his inauguration in January, President Trump signed an executive order that placed limits on the ability of nationals of seven majority Muslim counties to travel to the United States. Under this order — which quickly became known as a “travel ban” — citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq were largely prevented from entering the United States. Later, Iraq was removed from the list of countries on the list via a separate executive order. Protests immediately arose as a result of the travel ban, and multiple lawsuits challenged the legality of the ban.
Less than two weeks after the travel ban was enacted, a federal judge in Hawaii found that it violated the constitution, and issued a restraining order. This restraining order prevented the ban from taking effect as it was written. The Trump administration appealed the order, and the Ninth Circuit upheld the ruling. Several other federal courts also found that the travel ban violated the constitution, namely by banning the issuance of immigration visas on the basis of nationality. President Trump’s own words were often used against him in these rulings, with his multiple statements about a “Muslim ban” cited by judges in their rulings. These courts all issued injunctions against the ban, which means that the ban could not be enforced as it presently stood.
The Trump administration appealed the matter to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court stayed (suspended) the injunctions for any immigrant from one of the listed countries that does not have a “credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” The Court gave several examples of what may qualify as a “bona fide relationship,” such as a close relative in the United States, a place at an American college or university, a job offer at a U.S. company or a speaking engagement. The Supreme Court did not define what a “close family relationship” is in its ruling, leaving it up to the Trump administration to define this term. The Court did agree to hear arguments on the travel ban case, setting it on the calendar for the fall term. Under the terms of its ruling, the travel ban is set to expire within ninety days.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Trump administration chose to define “close family relationship” narrowly. It defined a close family relationship as having a parent, spouse, fiancé, son or daughter, sibling, son-in-law, or daughter-in-law in the United States. If a foreign national did not have one of these family members already living legally in the United States, then his or her visa application would be denied. Other family members who may have a close relationship — such as grandparents or cousins — would not qualify under this standard. In addition, the Trump administration would continue to prevent any refugees from emigrating to the United States via refugee resettlement programs.
The case then went back before the federal judge in Hawaii who first ruled against the ban, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson. Judge Watson found that the definition of close family relationships provided by the Trump Administration was far too narrow. In his ruling, he noted that grandparents are the “epitome of close family members,” and that a definition that excludes them simply cannot stand. His order expanded the list to include grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. He further ruled that refugees with assurances from resettlement agencies would also be exempt from the ban.
The Department of Justice appealed this ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that Watson’s ruling effectively removed the word “close” out of the family relationships requirement. The Supreme Court disagreed. On July 19, it upheld Watson’s ruling as to the definition of close family relationships — but struck down his finding on refugees. Instead, the 24,000 refugees who are already working with resettlement agencies and are waiting to enter the United States will have to wait until the Supreme Court issues its final ruling on the travel ban in the fall term.
So what exactly does this ruling mean? For now, the ruling provides some clarity as to the terms of the travel ban. For anyone from one of the six countries on the list (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen), it means that they may be able to obtain a visa to enter the United States if they have a relative in the United States, a job offer, a place in a university, or other business or professional relationship. Under the expanded definition of “close family relationship,” there is a greater possibility of obtaining a visa if you have any family living in the United States.
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