A federal judge in Seattle has put a nationwide block on US president Donald Trump's week-old executive order that had temporarily barred refugees and nationals from seven countries from entering the United States.
The judge's temporary restraining order on Friday is a major setback for Mr Trump's action, though the White House said late Friday that it believed the ban to be "lawful and appropriate" and that the US Department of Justice would file an emergency appeal.
However US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) has informed US airlines that they can once again board travelers who had been barred by the executive order last week.
The agency told airlines to operate just as they had before the order, which temporarily had stopped refugees and nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Individuals from those states who have proper visas can now board U.S.-bound flights, and airlines are working to update their websites to reflect the change, said an official, who was not authorised to speak publicly.
Mr Trump’s order caused chaos at airports across the United States last week as some citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen were denied entry. Virtually all refugees were also barred, upending the lives of thousands of people who had spent years seeking asylum in the US.
The US State Department said Friday that almost 60,000 visas were suspended in the wake of Mr Trump’s order; it was not clear Friday night whether that suspension was automatically revoked or what travelers with such visas might confront at US airports.
While a number of lawsuits have been filed over Trump’s action, the Washington state lawsuit was the first to test the broad constitutionality of the executive order.
Judge James Robart, a George W Bush appointee, explicitly made his ruling apply across the country, while other judges facing similar cases have so far issued orders concerning only specific individuals.
The challenge in Seattle was brought by the state of Washington and later joined by the state of Minnesota. The judge ruled that the states have legal standing to sue, which could help Democratic attorneys general take on Mr Trump in court on issues beyond immigration.
Washington’s case was based on claims that the state had suffered harm from the travel ban, for example students and faculty at state-funded universities being stranded overseas. Amazon.com and Expedia, both based in Washington state, had supported the lawsuit, asserting that the travel restrictions harmed their businesses.
Tech companies, which rely on talent from around the world, have been increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
Judge Robart questioned a justice department lawyer on what he called the “litany of harms” suffered by Washington state’s universities, and also questioned the administration’s use of the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the United States as a justification for the ban.
The judge said no attacks had been carried out on US soil by individuals from the seven countries affected by the travel ban since that assault. For Mr Trump’s order to be constitutional, he said, it had to be “based in fact, as opposed to fiction.”
The White House said it would file an appeal as soon as possible.
“At the earliest possible time, the department of justice intends to file an emergency stay of this outrageous order and defend the executive order of the president, which we believe is lawful and appropriate,” the White House said in a statement.
“The president’s order is intended to protect the homeland and he has the constitutional authority and responsibility to protect the American people.”
Washington governor Jay Inslee celebrated the decision as a victory for the state, adding: “No person - not even the president - is above the law.”
The judge’s decision was welcomed by groups protesting the ban.
But the fluid legal situation was illustrated by the fact that the ruling came just hours after a federal judge in Boston declined to extend a temporary restraining order allowing some immigrants into the United States from countries affected by Mr Trump’s three-month ban.
At least one company, the ride-hailing giant Uber, was moving quickly Friday night to take advantage of the ruling.
Chief executive Travis Kalanick, who quit Mr Trump’s business advisory council this week in the face of a fierce backlash from Uber customers and the company’s many immigrant drivers, said on Twitter: “We have a team of in-house attorneys who’ve been working night & day to get US resident drivers & stranded families back into country.
“I just chatted with our head of litigation Angela, who’s buying a whole bunch of airline tickets ASAP!! #homecoming #fingerscrossed”
Four States in court
The decision in Washington state came at the end of a day of furious legal activity around the country over the immigration ban. The Trump administration has justified its actions on national security grounds, but opponents have labeled it an unconstitutional order targeting people based on religious beliefs.
In Boston, a judge expressed skepticism during oral arguments about a civil rights group’s claim that Mr Trump’s order represented religious discrimination, before declining to extend the restraining order.
In Virginia, another ordered the federal government to give the state a list by Thursday of "all persons who have been denied entry to or removed from the United States."
The state of Hawaii on Friday also filed a lawsuit alleging that the order is unconstitutional and asking the court to block the order across the country.