A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected the Trump administration's view of who should be allowed into the United States under the president's travel ban, saying grandparents, cousins and similarly close relations of people in the US should not be prevented from coming to the country.
The unanimous ruling from three judges on the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals also cleared the way for refugees accepted by a resettlement agency, reopening the country's door to thousands of refugees who had been temporarily blocked by President Trump's travel ban.
The decision, which was cheered by refugee resettlement organisations, upheld a ruling by a federal judge in Hawaii who found the administration's view too strict (See: Federal judge in Hawaii issues sweeping freeze on Trump travel ban).
"Stated simply, the government does not offer a persuasive explanation for why a mother-in-law is clearly a bona fide relationship, in the Supreme Court's prior reasoning, but a grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, or cousin is not,'' the 9th Circuit said.
The appeals panel wrote that under typical court rules, its ruling would not take effect for at least 52 days. But in this instance, the judges said, many refugees would be "gravely imperilled'' by such a delay, so the decision will take effect in five days.
"Refugees' lives remain in vulnerable limbo during the pendency of the Supreme Court's stay,'' they wrote. "Refugees have only a narrow window of time to complete their travel, as certain security and medical checks expire and must then be reinitiated.''
In June, the Supreme Court allowed parts of President Trump's executive order temporarily barring all travellers from six predominantly Muslim countries, as well as all refugees, to take effect while the court considered arguments over whether such a ban was constitutional. But the court said the government should let in travellers and refugees with a ''bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States'', without fully defining what that meant.
The administration defined it as immediate family members and in-laws, but not grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. It also excluded refugees whose only tie to the United States was to the resettlement agency that was working to bring them into the country.
In July, Judge Derrick K Watson of Federal District Court in Honolulu disagreed with that interpretation for both refugees and relatives, and the administration appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Justice Department lawyers argued that only parents, children, siblings and in-laws constitute close relatives. But the three judges of the appellate court, Michael Hawkins, Ronald Gould and Richard Paez, all appointees of President Bill Clinton, upheld Judge Watson's decision on Thursday.
The Justice Department said it would appeal.
"The Supreme Court has stepped in to correct these lower courts before, and we will now return to the Supreme Court to vindicate the executive branch's duty to protect the nation,'' the agency said in a statement.
Deputy assistant attorney general Hashim Mooppan ran into tough questions as soon as he began arguing the government's case, with Judge Ronald Gould asking him from "what universe'' the administration took its position that grandparents don't constitute a close family relationship.
Hawaii is also one of 15 states that sued the Trump administration Wednesday over its plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects young immigrants from deportation.
"Today's decision by the 9th Circuit keeps families together. It gives vetted refugees a second chance,'' state Attorney General Douglas Chin said in a statement. ''The Trump administration keeps taking actions with no legal basis. We will keep fighting back.''