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Trump Administrative Order on Travel Likely to Withstand Legal Challenge

Posted in News, Opinions and Analysis

Adam Liptak has a comprehensive article in today’s New York Times over nationwide appellate proceedings regarding President Trump’s Executive Order banning travel from several Middle Eastern nations. The article tracks the progress of an order from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington staying enforcement of much of the Executive Order. The administration has appealed and that case is moving forward on an accelerated briefing schedule in the Ninth Circuit. On the East Coast, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts has refused to grant a stay of the Executive Order’s enforcement, reasoning that the immigrants are not likely to prevail on the merits.

The issue in the case is how to draw the line between executive power under Article II versus the First Amendment’s protection against the establishment of a religion. Article II vests in the president wide latitude in conducting foreign affairs and in regulating immigration into the country.

Issues to Consider

  • To what extent may we look beyond the text of the executive order? The text mentions nothing about banning immigrants on the basis of religion. Here’s the relevant text:

In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.

  • The President has made some statements about a potential preference for Christians seeking to enter the United States to escape persecution. But I am unclear on the extent to which the courts are allowed to look to such statements versus the language of the order.
  • Even if the restriction is wholly or partially based in religion, is there a First-Amendment violation? May religion be a factor in immigration decisions? It’s a murkier question than it might appear on its face. May the government weigh a person’s religion as a factor in determining the extent to which the person poses a threat to safety? The question would turn on whether doing so “establishes” a religion. For instance, let’s imagine a hypothetical religion. Suppose there was a sect of people who believed that the true God countenanced no secular leaders and that it was the sacred duty of a follower of that religion to overthrow any secular governmental figures. In other words, the central religious tenets of our hypothetical religion included a duty to war against the idea of government. Would it be a violation of the First Amendment to bar adherents to that religion from entering the country? The answer would appear to be no.

If I were to place a bet on the outcome of this litigation, I would bet on the administration. Beyond the Constitution, Congress has vested the President with broad power over immigration. Adam Liptak writes:

A key part of immigration law does give the president broad power. It says, “Whenever the president finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.”

But another part of the law forbids discrimination “because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth or place of residence,” but only “in the issuance of an immigrant visa.” The Trump administration argues that the power to bar entry, the subject of the first law, is broader than the limits on issuing visas.

I make no editorial comment upon the wisdom of the president’s immigration decisions. Rather, in terms of the law, he likely stands on a solid footing with respect to current legal challenges to the Order.