A U.S. appeals court in San Francisco has heard oral arguments on whether a federal judge had the legal grounds to put a hold on President Donald Trump’s controversial ban on immigration from seven Muslim majority countries.
The hearing before the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges ended without announcing a ruling. A judge said the court will issue a decision “as soon as possible.”
The hearing, which lasted a little over an hour, is the greatest legal challenge yet to the ban, which has upended travel to the U.S. for more than a week and tested the new administration’s use of executive power.
The government asked the court to restore Trump’s order, contending that the president alone has the power to decide who can enter or stay in the United States. But several states have fought the ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations and insisted that it is unconstitutional.
The judges – two Democratic appointees and one Republican – repeatedly questioned Justice Department lawyer August Flentje on why the states should not be able to sue on behalf of their residents or on behalf of their universities, which have complained about students and faculty getting stranded overseas.
Circuit Judge Michelle T. Friedland, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, asked whether the government has any evidence connecting the seven predominantly Muslim nations covered by the ban to terrorism.
Flentje told the judges that the case was moving fast and the government had not yet included evidence to support the ban.
Friedland asked if the government had connected any immigrants from the seven countries to terrorism. Flentje cited a number of Somalis in the U.S. who, he said, had been connected to the al-Shabab terrorist group terror group after judges asked for evidence about the ban.
Flentje said the president has broad powers to protect national security and the right to assess risks based on the actions of Congress and his predecessor during the last two years.
Other States File Briefs
Attorneys general in 15 other states have filed briefs in support of Washington and Minnesota. The American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 100 corporations, and a group of Democrats that includes former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Madeleine Albright, also filed briefs.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robart’s decision Friday suspending Trump’s executive order has the president fuming.
“I actually can’t believe that we’re having to fight to protect the security, in a court system, to protect the security of our nation,” Trump said Tuesday.
He earlier tweeted that Robart is a “so-called judge” and that the American people should blame him and the court system if “something happens.”
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly defended the ban. He took responsibility for its unwieldy rollout and mass confusion over who was covered by the ban and who should be allowed to enter the U.S. He told the House Homeland Security Committee there was a lack of communication with Congress and that the travel ban should have been delayed “just a bit.”
But he defended it against Democratic critics who call it a ban on Muslims, saying the terror risk, not religion, was the key factor in the president’s order.
“It’s not being done because they’re Muslim countries,” Kelly testified. “It’s being done because we don’t trust their vetting or their information.”
Kelly characterized the ban as a needed pause in immigration from countries where conditions on the ground prevented the U.S. from adequately vetting applicants.
The new Homeland Security secretary told members of Congress that while he respects the decisions of the judicial branch, he approaches the issue of border security from a different perspective.
“In their courtrooms they’re protected by people like me. So they can have those discussions and if something bad happens from letting people in, they don’t come to the judge and ask about his ruling, they come to people like me.”
If the case eventually goes to the Supreme Court, the nation’s highest judicial body, one analyst told VOA there are rulings from the past that could support Trump’s policy.
New York-based attorney Dan McLaughlin, told VOA Persian’s New Horizon show “The Supreme Court has held for a long time that Congress has nearly unlimited authority in deciding who can enter the country — an authority that includes excluding people from particular countries, as it did with Chinese immigration in the 1880s.”
McLaughlin said, “Because the president is relying on an authority delegated to him by Congress, he has a broad authority to act on immigration within the law, whether you think his policy is wise or not.”
But he added that Trump’s prominent advocacy of a U.S. ban on all immigration by Muslims could come back to weaken his case before the Supreme Court.
“There’s no question that the president has a legacy of comments that are going to make it more difficult for him to defend [his executive order on immigration in court and the public,” McLaughlin said.
VOA’s Katherine Gypson , Mohammad Manzarpour, Parisa Farhadi contributed to this report. Some material in this report from AP.