WASHINGTON —The Trump administration took a major step back late Sunday from its 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,” Homeland Security Secretary 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 came hours after White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Trump’s executive order would not apply to legal permanent residents “going forward” and after federal judges in Boston had ruled that border security agents could not detain permanent residents or anyone with a valid U.S.-issued visa.
Kelly’s action came after a day of conflict over the order that was played in the nation’s busiest international airports Sunday.
Scenes of family members waiting for detained loved ones dominated international arrival terminals, while volunteer attorneys worked around the clock to stop deportations and free detained passengers.
Trump’s directive reportedly was imposed with little notice or guidance to the relevant authorities, creating havoc in arrival halls and triggering late-night legal challenges in federal courts.
Even after Kelly’s statement there were still unanswered questions about what the government intended to do about refugees who had received permission to come to the United States before Trump signed his order Friday afternoon. Two court rulings questioned whether Trump could reject by executive action valid immigration documents issued by the government itself.
Airports remained the frontline in the battle. Crowds gathered at airports in Miami, Dallas, Cleveland, Charlotte, N.C., 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.
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.
But the White House showed no signs of backing down. Trump and his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, rejected charges of constitutional overreach. Priebus said the list of banned nations for travel may expand to “Pakistan and other countries.”
A Priebus statement that the ban would not apply to permanent U.S. residents from those countries “going forward” went unexplained, and there was no new document from the White House changing what Trump had signed on Friday.
A Trump statement issued in the afternoon provided no clarification, though Trump did say the U.S. would begin issuing visas “to all countries” after the 90-day ban lapses.
“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.”
“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world — a horrible mess!” Trump said in a Twitter post Sunday morning.
Priebus, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said the Trump administration issued the 90-day ban on travel to the United States by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen because they were “most identifiable with dangerous terrorism taking place in their country.”
“Perhaps we need to go further,” Priebus said.
About 325,000 foreign travelers entered the United States Saturday, and 109 of them were singled out because of their countries of origin and underwent extensive questioning to ensure “that they didn’t do anything nefarious overseas,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
The White House website still did not list the executive order Sunday afternoon, nearly 48 hours after it was issued.
The class-action lawsuit challenging the deportations of those detained as a result of the executive order was filed in federal court in Brooklyn 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 the Justice Department had to call in for the hearing.
Donnelly issued her stay 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.
The controversy attracted worldwide attention. Leaders of European U.S. allies rejected Trump’s order, and Britain’s foreign secretary called 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 back seat 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 seeking to stop 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.
Attorneys said Atlanta and Chicago airport-based officials released some people from detention, while officials at Los Angeles and San Francisco airports, initially, did not.
Lawyers reported that government attorneys in some cases were not answering their phones.
Much of the spotlight was on Judge Donnelly, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2015 by President Barack Obama. The Senate confirmed her 95-2, with strong GOP support.
But her ruling was only the first in a series in which multiple federal judges heard similar arguments, and in some cases issued similar orders.
In Boston, for example, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs and U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Gail Dein Sunday issued a related temporary restraining order blocking detention or deportation of people 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 outside Washington.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly of Seattle, who was appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan, also blocked specific deportations.
“I think there will be broader challenges, but we needed to stop the immediate harm,” attorney Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union said Sunday.
The next legal steps will unfold over a few weeks. Gelernt, deputy director of ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said the Justice Department is scheduled to file a legal brief with the Brooklyn-based judge by Feb. 12. The immigrants’ attorneys will respond within 48 hours of that.
Refugee advocates and civil libertarians said Sunday that thousands of volunteer attorneys had mobilized since Friday, often showing up at airports on their own.
In a media call Sunday before Kelly issued his statement, advocacy groups warned that travelers from countries on the blacklist were still at risk of detention or removal under Trump’s order. They recommended that travelers with concerns arrange to enter the United States at Boston’s Logan airport, where the broadest court order was in effect.
The advocacy groups listed several specific cases of authorities not complying with judicial orders to halt deportations and, in some cases, release the passengers or at least provide them access to lawyers. There were stories of people being handcuffed, asked 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,” Heller said.
Among the concerns of activists on the call:
—Lawyers at Dulles International Airport said they still hadn’t been able to speak to detained travelers, in violation of a federal court ruling ordering attorney access.
—A young Iranian woman in the United States on a Fulbright program was forced onto a Ukrainian plane for deportation until an eleventh-hour reprieve came through and “they literally turned the plane around while it was taxiing” and allowed her to stay, Heller said.
—A 17-year-old Afghan orphan whose entire family had been killed in a land-mine explosion was scheduled to fly to a foster family in Seattle after years of awaiting resettlement. Even though Trump’s order doesn’t include Afghan citizens, the boy was barred from boarding his flight.
“There’s no method to this madness,” Heller said.
In Dallas, airport authorities announced that all arriving passengers who had been detained were being released and would be reunited with their families “at an offsite location.”
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 Washington 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 iceberg,” 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 of McClatchy and and Lee Williams and Diane Smith of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.)