WASHINGTON — A panel of federal appeals court judges appeared unwilling Monday to expand the reach of President Donald Trump's travel ban, after a series of rulings allowed the executive order to be enforced but limited its effect.
The three judges, from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, heard courtroom argument on a plea from the Trump administration to let the government use a list it compiled in late June for deciding who can apply for a visa from six Muslim-majority countries while the travel restrictions are in place.
In late June, the United States Supreme Court ruled that while portions of the travel ban could be enforced, people overseas "who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship" with a relative or an organization in the U.S. would be exempt. In response, the State Department said that meant only parents, parents-in-law, spouses, fiances, children, and children-in-law could get visas during the 90 days while the ban is in place.
The Supreme Court ruling said individuals must have a close family relationship with someone in the U.S. to get a visa. But the government's claim that the term does not cover grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and siblings-in-law was greeted Monday with skepticism.
"How can the government take the position that a grandmother or grandfather, or aunt or uncle, of a child in the U.S. does not have a close familial relationship? What universe does that come from?" asked Judge Michael Hawkins.
"What's significantly different between a grandparent and a mother-in-law?" asked Judge Paez.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hashim Mooppan said the government's list was based on provisions of federal immigration law. "It can't mean all family members except the most distant," he argued.
But Colleen Roh Sinzdak, appearing on behalf of Hawaii, which is challenging the executive order, said the more comprehensive list advocated by the state followed other Supreme Court rulings defining close family members.
It appeared less certain Monday how the judges would rule on what category of refugees worldwide are exempt from the executive order.
Sinzdak argued for Hawaii that the exemption should include all refugees covered by agreements with resettlement agencies. But Mooppan said those contracts are between the agencies and the federal government, not between the agencies and the refugees.
The Seattle courtroom argument had a distinctly anti-climactic feeling. The president's travel ban expires September 24. And the Supreme Court has scheduled oral argument for October 10 on whether Trump had the power to issue the order in the first place.
The three judges who heard the case Monday — Hawkins, Paez, and Ronald Gould — ruled earlier this year that the president exceeded his authority in imposing the restrictions, helping to set the stage for Supreme Court review.