FILE - This Dec. 2015 file photo shows U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Honolulu. Watson on Thursday, July 13, 2017, expanded the list of family relationships needed by people seeking new visas from six mostly Muslim countries to avoid President Donald Trump's travel ban. Watson ordered the government not to enforce the ban on grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins of people in the United States.
Photo: George Lee /The Star-Advertiser via AP, File
Photo: George Lee /The Star-Advertiser via AP, File

Hawaii judge expands exemptions to Trump’s travel ban

A federal judge in Hawaii has issued an order expanding the list of exemptions to President Donald Trump’s travel ban, favoring travelers from six Muslim-majority countries and refugees who have grandparents and other relatives in the U.S. 

In a 26-page ruling issued late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson, a President Barack Obama appointee, said the exemptions will apply to those with grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins in the U.S. Refugees who have been given a “formal assurance” from a resettlement agency in the U.S. that they may come here are also exempt under Watson’s order. 

“Common sense, for instance, dictates that close family members be defined to include grandparents,” Watson wrote in his order. “Indeed, grandparents are the epitome of close family members. The government’s definition excludes them. That simply cannot be.” 

Watson ruled after the state of Hawaii challenged the Trump administration’s travel restrictions. 

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a statement Friday criticizing the court’s decision.

“The district court has issued decisions that are entrusted to the executive branch, undermined national security, delayed necessary action, created confusion, and violated a proper respect for separation of powers,” he said. “The Supreme Court has had to correct this lower court once, and we will now reluctantly return directly to the Supreme Court to again vindicate the rule of law and the executive branch's duty to protect the nation.”

Last month, the Supreme Court reinstated key parts of Trump’s revised travel ban while agreeing to hear legal challenges to his executive order. In its ruling, the high court partially granted the Trump administration's request to lift preliminary injunctions against the directive and let it block visitors from six Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, freeze the nation's refugee resettlement program for 120 days and limit the number of refugees who may be brought here this fiscal year to 50,000, down from about 85,000 the year before. (The 50,000-cap was reached this week.) 

But the court said those restrictions cannot be applied to people with a "bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” The court also used the phrase “close familial relationship.” The Trump administration is interpreting such relationships to include a parent - including a parent-in-law - spouse, child, adult son or adult daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law or sibling. This includes step relationships. Not included are grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law and any other “extended family members.” 

Trump administration officials have also said that formal assurances given by refugee resettlement agencies would not be sufficient in and of themselves for refugees to establish bona fide relationships under the court ruling.

Watson disagreed in his ruling, saying: “An assurance from a United States refugee resettlement agency, in fact, meets each of the Supreme Court’s touchstones: it is formal, it is a documented contract, it is binding, it triggers responsibilities and obligations, including compensation, it is issued specific to an individual refugee only when that refugee has been approved for entry by the Department of Homeland Security, and it is issued in the ordinary course, and historically has been for decades.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case in October.